Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski welcomes refugees and immigrants — but not Trump policies

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) "We are proud to open our communities, our workplaces and our homes to new immigrants and refugees,” Mayor Jackie Biskupski said during an event in Salt Lake City's Main Library to kick off Welcome Week on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.

Mayor Jackie Biskupski said Monday that Salt Lake City is a welcoming refuge for everyone — except maybe President Donald Trump and his immigration and refugee policies.

Trump “sees immigrants and refugees as a threat to America," she said, “rather than what they truly are: humans who bring rich diversity and economic stability.”

That came as the mayor kicked off an annual “Welcoming Week” of concerts, parades and exhibits to celebrate new immigrants and refugees (with the schedule at slco.org/welcoming-salt-lake). But she said it comes “with a cloud over our head” because of Trump’s policies.

“He’s driving us to dig deep into our souls about who we really are as a people,” Biskupski said at a news conference at the Salt Lake City Main Library. “He is putting up a mirror for all of us to look in. We have to decide who we really are when we see it.”

She especially criticized administration proposals to drastically cut or even eliminate refugee resettlement.

“The federal administration’s rollback on resettlement has meant 1,000 fewer refugees have settled in Utah alone — 1,000 individuals who are denied the opportunity for a safe and better life,” she said.

A recent Pew Research Center analysis said refugees entering the United States numbered about 85,000 in 2016, the last year of President Barack Obama’s presidency, to less than 54,000 in 2017 during Trump’s first year. That declined to 22,500 in 2018 and about 28,000 this year.

Trump this year has capped refugees at 30,000 — down from a high of 110,000 under Obama — and is considering reducing it further.

Biskupski called on residents to raise their voices to demand allowing at least 100,000 refugees into the country a year.

“It is incumbent upon those of us who live in this community — whether you trace your lineage back to handcarts or a ski trip like me — that we all work hard to preserve and defend what truly makes us a great state to live in: our culture of being a place of refuge, work, opportunity and love,” she said.

The mayor introduced some refugees and immigrants who will be featured at events this week, who she said strengthen the state with their work and talents.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Abi Goddey performs one of his poems during an event Salt Lake City's downtown library to start Welcome Week on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.

Sylviane Bahati, now a fashion designer who loves to use African inspiration, arrived in America at age 3 as a refugee from war in Congo, after living in a refugee camp in Uganda.

In that camp, “My parents would trade our home décor and our belongings just so we could have good clothes and eat every day. Sometimes we didn’t eat,” she said. “All I can remember is my parents coming home every night and praying so that we could come to the United States and that we could find refuge somewhere else much safer.”

Bahati said her family was thrilled to come to America but found life was still far from easy. “It was hard to blend in. It was hard to fit in school. In my classes, I had to learn a whole new language.”

She said she found that when people think of Congo, “people think of dirty. They think of ripped-up clothes and no shoes.” Bahati tries to show with her colorful and happy designs that people from her homeland are not like that.

Dancer Cheryl Neufville told how her parents came from Liberia for a wedding in Boston — but became stranded when war erupted at home, the airport shut down, and they could not return. Her grandmother in Liberia had hidden two of Neufville’s sisters before rebels dragged her out of her home and killed her.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cheryl Neufville performs a dance during an event at Salt Lake City's downtown library to start Welcome Week on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.

Neufville struggled as someone quite different from others in America. She found it hard to talk — and said she began to express herself in dance.

“I hope that through my dance and through my body I can continue to speak to others, and inspire those who are struggling to find their voice in a new world that it’s OK, take what time you need and you listen to your path,” she said.

Poet Willy Palomo read a poem — “Nochebuena,” or Christmas Eve — that he wrote about a cousin who escaped from war and torture in El Salvador by crossing without documents into the U.S. on a Christmas Eve.

It told how the cousin and a companion were startled on Christmas Day by a homeless man fishing cans from a dumpster. “Once the dumpster man realized who they were, he left and returned with a box of cookies for them to share. It was all they would eat for the day,” and was their only Christmas present.

With contributions from such people, Biskupski said, “We take great pride in the success of our immigrant and refugee communities because we know that their success is a reflection of our own values.”

She added thatSalt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the state of Utah are welcoming communities. We are places of refuge for those seeking a better life. We are proud to open our communities, our workplaces and our homes to new immigrants and refugees.”

Also on Monday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson — a co-sponsor of Welcoming Week — announced she is among a delegation of officials from counties nationwide who will visit the Mexican border this week.

“It is imperative that elected leaders at the federal, state and local levels do more to understand the humanitarian crisis at our border and how it affects our communities at home," Wilson said. "Touring Border Patrol facilities and the port of entry gives firsthand insight into how we in Salt Lake County can better serve all of our residents.”