Tahmina Martelly remembers all the windows in her house shattering as bombs fell near her home in 1971. Civil war in Bangladesh had just begun.
She believes her house was attacked because her father was an engineer. "Immediately, in five minutes, our lives changed," Martelly said.
For the next nine months, Martelly, then 8, and her family searched for a route out of the country, eventually traveling on a grain barge. They moved between countries, ending up in Yemen. Seven years later, Martelly was granted asylum in the U.S.
On Thursday, Martelly spoke to reporters and others at the New Roots Redwood Road Farm, a community garden in West Valley City for refugees and residents granted asylum.
"When you come to the U.S., everything is new," Martelly said. "The food, clothing, and speaking English is very difficult."
The gathering kicked off Utah Refugee Month, which Gov. Gary Herbert declared for the second year in conjunction with the United Nations' World Refugee Month. Well-known poverty advocate Pamela Atkinson, a special advisor for Herbert, read his declaration.
Gerald Brown, director of Utah's Refugee Services office, said that about 99 percent of Utah's refugees live in the Salt Lake Valley. Utah welcomed 1,100 refugees in 2010 and 836 refugees in 2011.
The U.S. admitted 56,384 refugees last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. They came primarily from Burma, Bhutan and Iraq.
"They did not immigrate willingly," Brown said Thursday. "They did so to save their lives and their children. They are the epitome of human bravery."
Brown recalls one memorable event from a town hall meeting during Refugee Month last year. About 60 refugee parents spoke up one-by-one, not about cultural differences, language barriers or even economic struggles.
"At that time, the refugee office was only three years old, and we wanted to talk with them about how things were going," Brown said. "What struck me was that every person talked about education for their children. That was really touching to me."
Brown said that June's events are aimed at creating more awareness of the refugee community in Salt Lake City, which his office estimates is close to 30,000 residents, predominantly from Sudan, Bhutan, Somalia and Iraq.
An exact number of refugees is difficult to determine, as refugees are free to move anywhere in the U.S., and Brown's office lacks the necessary funds to conduct a regular census.
The events kick off on June 5 with a panel discussion at the Salt Lake City Public Library at 6:30 p.m. They wrap up with June 16's World Refugee Day Festival on the Granite High School football field. A full list of the 20 events can be found by downloading a PDF online.
"The main hope is that a lot more people will understand who refugees are and what they have done to get here," Brown said. "We don't want people thinking that refugees have crossed the borders illegally. They have fled their countries because of persecution."
Added Martelly, "We have so much to share. That's why we are so excited for this month."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provides assistance for people facing persecution overseas, then coordinates with the U.S. Department of State/Immigration and Naturalization Services and other countries in Europe to relocate them.
Non-government organizations, such as Utah's Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee, help them settle into new homes.
Utah Refugee Awareness month at a glance
June 5 • Refugee panel discussion, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Public Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City.
June 8 • Women of the world fashion show, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Pierpont Place, 163 West Pierpont Ave. (255 South), Salt Lake City.
June 16 • World Refugee Day festival, noon to 6 p.m. at Granite High School, 3305 S. 500 East, Salt Lake City.
June 23 • Run for Refugees 5K run/walk, 8:30 a.m. at Jordan Park, 1000 S. 900 West, Salt Lake City.