Utah Refugee Connection and Granite School District threw a holiday party for refugee families at Lincoln Elementary School on Friday night.
The school’s principal, Milton Collins, filled in for Santa Claus.
Kids took turns sitting next to Santa, on a giant red armchair, as he asked them about their goals, school and how they were helping their parents.
“This Santa doesn’t ask, ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ because some of them won’t get something for Christmas,” said Amy Dott Harmer, director of Utah Refugee Connection.
But each child did receive at least one gift during the party: a handmade teddy bear or doll — some with hijabs, some without.
“Every child needs something to give them comfort,” said Sarah Parson, whose Dolls of Hope provided the bears and dolls.
Two small Iraqi boys in matching red and green elf hats sat on a giant red armchair on either side of Santa Claus on Friday evening. The younger of the two, a 7-month-old, stared up at Santa. His 19-month-old brother sat on the edge of the chair and looked ahead at his parents, who were snapping photos.
The two boys had lived in Iraq with their mother until a month ago, when they came to Utah as refugees.
“I would love to see more of this,” said Karar Haider, the boys’ father, who has been in Utah for 18 years. “Christmas, Easter, something for Halloween. It’s a nice touch. It introduces immigrants to the American culture.”
Events like this one help new arrivals adjust, he said.
“Most [new arrivals] want to open up, but they don’t know how,” Haider said. “Things like this make it easier.”
Because refugees come from many faiths, the party didn’t emphasize any one religion.
“We want it to be a party,” Harmer said. “We have Santa because we know that there are some families that want to see Santa. But we purposefully try not to make it overly Christian, or overly Christmas,” so no one feels excluded.
Activities included face painting, dancing and a photo booth. Refreshments were served. Everything — including the food and gift cards — was donated, Harmer said. Donors attached notes for the refugees as well.
“Welcome to Utah,” one child wrote. “I hope you feel welcome here. I know it must be challenging to adjust to everything. It’ll all work out.”
Getting things to work out is the goal, Harmer said, so her group links refugees to what they need, whether that be food, comfort or a friend.
Yvette Bwende, who emigrated with her family from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011, thanked Utah and the organizers for the event.
“Because some refugees don’t get a gift for Christmas, and Christmas is a very big holiday,” she said. “Thank you to everyone who gave a gift.”