Utah refugees thank Gov. Gary Herbert for his support

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert just received a love note from leaders of Utah’s refugees elated with his invitation that President Donald Trump send more refugees here after the president reduced the number that the nation will accept.

“We want you to know that many of us have sisters, brothers, wives, mothers and others stuck in refugee camps and we appreciate your help in bringing our family members to Utah,” they said in a letter written last month but released Thursday at a meeting of the Utah Refugee Advisory Board.

They also thanked the governor for bringing positive attention to Utah refugees by saying the state wants more of them and appreciates their contributions. After Trump issued an order allowing states to refuse to accept refugees, the only other states to say they will accept them so far are Kansas, Pennsylvania and Washington — which all have Democratic governors.

“Gov. Herbert, you have touched the hearts of many people in the refugee community by speaking out nationally on behalf of refugees and for standing with Utah refugees,” the letter said. “Thank you for your compassion, Love from Utah’s refugees.”

(Lefteris Pitarakis | AP file photo) In this Oct. 11, 2014 file photo, Syrian Kurdish refugee children who fled Kobani with their families stand outside their tent at a refugee camp in Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border.

It was signed by 30 leaders from a variety of Utah refugee groups from countries including Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Eritrea and Congo.

Asha Parekh, director of the Utah Refugee Services Office, said the leaders drafted the letter spontaneously a day after Herbert sent his original letter

“They wanted to support the governor for his support of refugees and for wanting to bring more,” she said, so staff quickly typed up their thoughts and the leaders signed it. They presented the letter in person to Herbert last week.

“They had the opportunity to meet with the governor and take lots of selfies with him, and thank him for his kind words,” Parekh said.

Herbert’s original letter noted that Utah was founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution. “As a result, we empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their home and we love giving them a new home and a new life,” Herbert wrote. “They become productive employees and responsible citizens.”

Herbert’s letter lamented that the federal government has sent fewer refugees to Utah during the Trump administration — and said the state is far from reaching the limit of refugees who can be successfully integrated here.

The Refugee Advisory Board released an annual report to the governor on Thursday that includes data about the reduced number of refugees coming here during Trump’s administration.

That number fell from 1,245 in 2016 before Trump was elected to 472 last year. (The number of refugees accepted nationally was 110,000 in 2017, but Trump is allowing just 18,000 next year).

“In spite of the lower numbers, Utah has continued to remain a welcoming place for newly arriving refugees as well as those who have long called Utah their home,” the report says.

It adds that Utah has nearly 65,000 former refuges living in the state, with about 99% of them living in the Salt Lake Valley.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Women line up to pick out vegetables at the Sunnyvale Farmers Market at 4013 S. 700 West, which draws a weekly refugee clientele on July 13, 2019, selling food grown exclusively by refugees living in Utah.

“With sizable refugee populations from Bhutan, Bosnia, Burma, Burundi, Congo, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Vietnam and the former Soviet Union, among others, the Salt Lake Valley is becoming incredibly diverse,” it said.

Trump’s executive order allowing states to refuse acceptance of refugees requires not only a governor to say he or she is willing to accept them but also local counties.

The board noted that Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has also provided such a letter. Almost all new Utah refugees live in her county because services for them are located there. It has also received letters so far from Cache and Weber counties and is working on others.

Parekh noted that refugee leaders in other states have said they envy the support they see from leaders and residents of the Beehive State.

She said one in Idaho told her, “I am so jealous of what is happening in Utah.” Parekh added, “We are so fortunate to have so much state and local support.”

Also of note, this week, after Herbert’s earlier letter, the governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a news release reaffirming its support for refugees and encouraged members to “create welcoming communities” for those trying to integrate into society.