Utah’s open-hearted and welcoming attitude toward refugees was on full display Saturday as hundreds gathered in a Salt Lake City park to celebrate World Refugee Day.
In sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric toward immigrants, refugee bans and controversy over his “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, some of the 65,000 refugees who have settled in the Beehive State happily spread their stories, music, dancing, food and mutual support across the green lawns of Fairmont Park — including 11 residents who became new U.S. citizens.
Those raising their right hands and swearing an Oath of Allegiance to the U.S. Constitution all had fled persecution and violence, whether in Burma, Congo, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Bhutan, Iraq or Somalia.
“You 11 citizens are now ‘We The People,’ ” said J.J. Robertson, acting field office director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
Among them was Ubah Ahmed Adbi, 30, who left Somalia amid that African nation’s ongoing civil war, which has left thousands dead and displaced many more. Adbi said she is “happy and excited” over her U.S. citizenship — six years in the making — and that she relished having access to “a job, food, medicine, schools for my children.”
“So many things are different,” Adbi said of finding sanctuary and a new life in Salt Lake City. “But the big difference is I am free.”
Organizers announced Saturday that British-American singer and actor Alex Boyé, born of Nigerian parents, would be Utah’s new ambassador for refugees, replacing retired Utah Jazz player Thurl Bailey in the role. Boyé then led new citizens and his audience in a celebratory song and dance.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Workforce Services — a major provider of support services for those resettling in Utah — noted that refugees, by definition, have no choice but to leave their homes. They are screened for between two and five years or more before entering the United States, pay their own way to reach this country and, once here, receive no government help beyond what is available to any American in need.
World Refugee Day, said DWS spokeswoman Bethany Hyatt, celebrated their “strength and resilience, what they’ve overcome and how they’re successfully building their lives here.”
And so many on hand Saturday had indeed suffered deep trauma on their journeys to America, whether through physical attacks, hardship or long and desperate stints in refugee camps. Yet resilience was also readily apparent on their smiling faces, as refugees and family members wearing traditional garb chatted in the sunshine, sauntered between festival booths and perused the event’s handmade wares and sizzling snacks for sale.
Josephine Ayu, 60, fell quiet and began to cry when first asked about why she left her small village in the Democratic Republic of Congo nine years ago. “I’m here because of the war,” Ayu eventually whispered as she dabbed her eyes. “They killed everyone in my family.”
Her face later brightened as she showed off samples of homemade kwanga, a food made from cassava root and wrapped in banana leaves. Ayu, who works at Deseret Industries, then began asking passersby how she might borrow a Utah flag to wave during her upcoming visit to Washington, D.C.
Gustave Deogratiasi, 38, held his 2½-year-old daughter, Amina, as he recalled his parents fleeing Burundi’s civil war in 1972, only to spend nearly 40 years in a Tanzanian border refugee camp, where he was born.
“It was a really hard life,” the West Jordan resident and student said. “I feel so sorry my mother is still there. It is painful.”
But looking out over Saturday’s crowd, Deogratiasi, who arrived here in 2006, said he was “very happy when I see new people coming to Utah. I know there is going to be progress.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has been highly visible in recent years in support of accepting refugees to the state, even as fellow Republican governors across the country have turned them away. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox spoke passionately at Saturday’s event about their “love and affection” for the refugee community and why “Utah is different in many ways.”
“Many of those who first settled in Utah were religious and political refugees and we haven’t forgotten that,” said Cox, who recalled his own Mormon ancestors’ being targeted with an extermination order in frontier-era Missouri and a family home being burned to the ground.
Without mentioning Trump, Cox labeled as “unfortunate” the notion “of using fear as a weapon to try to increase popularity.” And he praised the influence that refugees from around the world were having on his home state.
“Although we are fairly homogeneous in Utah, that is changing,” he said in an interview. “The people who are moving to Utah today are just great people and they’re changing Utah in a very positive way.” Cox said Utah’s focus on devoting state money, caseworkers and other services to helping refugees settle, find work and achieve success was “very purposeful.”
“We’re the model for the nation,” he said. “People are coming here to see how we’re doing it. We’re proving that it can work.”
A spokesman for the nonprofit Catholic Community Services, one of two groups responsible for refugee resettlements in Utah, said it was “one of the most welcoming states in the U.S.” He praised, in particular, Herbert’s call for average Utahns to reach out to refugees personally as neighbors.
“We want the community to be involved and to be a friend to these refugees,” said Aden Batar, the nonprofit’s director of immigration and refugee resettlement, who came to Utah in 1994 from Somalia.
Batar said he would always remember those who connected with him in his early days on Utah soil, with offers of his first job, his first car. “Giving refugees their life back is just the right thing to do,” he said. “They are the future of this country and we need to help them. That’s what America is great at.”