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Iryna Voytyuk’s mother worked for her entire life in Ukraine and was never able to buy Iryna a bike.
Living in Ukraine is expensive, Voytyuk said. She recounted people slowly saving for a couch and having to prioritize home updates over travel.
But coming to America has given the Voytyuks and some of their loved ones more opportunities.
Since coming to the U.S. nine years ago from western Ukraine as a political asylee with her husband and three children, Voytyuk has been able to give her sons and daughter — and now her parents — the best.
After she brought her parents to Utah last year to escape the war in Ukraine, her mom saw the ocean for the first time at the age of 67 while on a family vacation in Florida.
The Voytyuks are among millions of people worldwide who have been displaced because of human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, war, regime change, and many other forms of persecution, conflict and violence.
Thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers have found a new home in Utah. While arrival numbers were declining, they’ve started to return to normal, giving more refugees what many say is an opportunity to be embraced as new Beehive State residents.
“As I go around and look at the communities, I see refugees integrated into the communities, working in different capacities, providing work on small businesses for the restaurant and other services,” said Cherif Diallo, director of the International Rescue Committee, one of two organizations that helps resettle refugees in Utah.
Mario Kljajo, director of Utah’s Refugee Services Office, agreed the state is welcoming and encouraged people to continue being so by getting to know their new neighbors.
There also are lots of opportunities to volunteer, Kljajo and others said.
Who is considered a refugee?
United States law defines a refugee as any person who is outside of his or her country of nationality or habitation and is “unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
People who meet this definition can be considered for refugee status if they are outside the U.S., or asylum status if they are already within the country.
Resettlement is the last option for people seeking refuge from their home country, said Aden Batar, who heads up migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services, the other Resettlement Support Center in Utah.
Less than 1% of the millions of refugees under the umbrella of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are submitted for resettlement, according to a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
The U.N. Refugee Agency recommends select countries for those refugees to resettle, including the U.S.
The U.S. then has a rigorous vetting process to decide whether to accept a refugee. The process can take months to years and includes screenings by eight federal agencies, six security checks, medical screenings and in-person interviews with officers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Refugees who make it through the process get a chance to work, live in a peaceful place and make sure their children get an education, Batar said.
Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee greet refugees with caseworkers and volunteers when they arrive in Utah.
People resettling here get information, programs and support services — including housing assistance, employment opportunities, access to health care and language help — to make sure they have the chance to thrive here. Services can last up to two years or longer in some cases.
“We’re giving an opportunity for them to rebuild their life and also have a home,” he said. “Many of them didn’t have a home for a long time, and they can’t go back to their home countries.”
Refugee numbers declined but are increasing
The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program has resettled around 3.1 million refugees since 1975 and more than 500,000 between 2012 and 2022, according to data gathered by Gardner.
There was a drop in admission numbers nationally and in Utah, though the exact number depends on who you ask, with reported arrival numbers for 2022 ranging between 450 and 1,816.
Gardner looked to the Refugee Processing Center, which reported arrival numbers in Utah dropped about 40% between 2016 and 2017, continued dropping until 2022 with the exception of 2019 and hadn’t yet increased back to typical numbers by 2022.
The drop is explained in part because the Trump administration slashed admissions nationwide to a record low of 15,000, and the pandemic also impacted entry numbers as the U.S. and other countries implemented policies to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Utah’s Refugee Services Office, part of the Department of Workforce Services, reported a 35.8% drop in arrival numbers in 2017 and mostly steady declines since — also with the exception of 2019.
But the state division reported a more than 500% increase in arrivals between 2021 and 2022 pushing numbers to higher than 2016 levels.
The Utah Department of Health and Human Services reported an earlier return to arrivals of more than 1,000 people.
Even as numbers fluctuated, Utah has received an average of 1.5% of refugees admitted to the U.S., the report from Gardner reads. That could mean another 1,800 or so refugees resettling in Utah between last October and the end of this September, based on President Joe Biden’s signed goal of 125,000 admissions.
Utah has welcomed refugees from all over the world, though state numbers show the largest portion — about 38% — have been from Africa, including Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thousands have also come from East Asia and the Pacific, South and Central Asia and the Middle East — countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Guatemala.
Batar said Utah is very welcoming to people from these various regions and refugees often are overwhelmed by the amount of community support they receive.
‘Everything we got was because of the people’
Voytyuk remembers Utahns helping out as soon as the family arrived. They stayed with her sister, who had gone to Brigham Young University and gotten married, then stayed in the U.S.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped with food for months when they arrived from Ukraine but couldn’t work yet, Voytyuk said.
They also had what Iryna’s daughter, Liya Voytyuk, who’s starting high school this year, said was the “best Christmas ever” when the family received gifts through a Giving Tree program after arriving in the U.S.
“Everything we got was because of the people,” Iryna Voytyuk said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t growing pains and unpleasant moments.
There are moments of miscommunication, Iryna Voytyuk said, especially with different usages of the same words because of cultural differences.
And there’s a language barrier at times, too — Liya and her siblings sometimes just order for Iryna at the drive-thru.
Liya Voytyuk also remembered kids teasing her in elementary school for not being able to pronounce the word “color.” More recently, she said, some of her fellow students also joked about bombs because of the war in Ukraine.
The family also faced barriers recently when trying to get documents for Liya to travel with the SheBelongs soccer team, a mix of refugee and non-refugee players who play with the goal of connecting refugees with others in the states.
Liya Voytyuk wasn’t able to travel with the team internationally because U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services denied a request for her to travel.
The federal agency wouldn’t tell the family why, Iryna Voytyuk said. That was the first time they’d felt unwelcomed, she said.
Overall, though, the Voytyuks love the U.S. and the opportunities the country has given them to grow and thrive.
‘Be a friend’
It isn’t just about what they get, either. Iryna Voytyuk likes to give back, too, since the family can afford to and knows how good it feels. She works as an information technology program manager for Vivint, and her husband is an electrician — a skill he learned since coming to the U.S.
She sent care packages to her parents in Ukraine before bringing them here, and because she was on the receiving end of others’ kindness, she now helps pay it forward by participating in holiday giving tree programs for families in need.
Utah is better in general for having refugees, Batar said.
Refugees take “a lot of the difficult jobs no one wants to fill,” he said, like construction, production and retail.
Their arrival also provides an opportunity for community members to volunteer, he said.
Catholic Community Services has many ways people can help, from providing a place to live or employment to fostering minors who come to the U.S. without a caregiver, Batar said.
Kljajo, with the refugee services office, recommended reaching out to CCS and other nonprofits directly to see how they can help, particularly outside the Wasatch Front where services aren’t as accessible. People also can reach out to the state to get connected with agencies, he said.
There also are ways to get involved without volunteering, Kljajo said, by getting to know refugees through opportunities like Utah Refugee Connection or by reaching out individually.
Utah has more than 65,000 refugees, he said, and they each have their own story and reason for coming here. It’s important to have personal experiences and get to know them as individuals, he said.
“Be a friend,” Kljajo said. “I think we sometimes miss how important that is.”
Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.
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