Mikhail Shneyder: Welcoming refugees is what Utah stands for

(Courtesy of the Utah Department of Workforce Services) Gov. Gary Herbert accepts a lifetime achievement award Friday from leaders of Utah's refugee community and the Governor’s Refugee Services Advisory Board.

When I first came to the United States as a refugee from Belarus in the former Soviet Union at age 19, I had a degree in nursing but spoke little English.

I grew up experiencing systematic Soviet discrimination against Jews like me and was unsure whether pursuing an advanced degree or having a fulfilling career was even possible. I had spent my elementary school years caring for my disabled mother who suffered from encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain. Besides, I was good at it. Nursing seemed like a logical career.

Still I doubted whether I had made the right choice. When I finally got my American registered nursing license a few years later, I cared for fragile patients undergoing dialysis and was amazed to see how my work directly improved their health and happiness. Nursing was no longer my default career; it became my passion and life’s work.

Today, I’m the chief executive of Nightingale College, which has helped 700 people become licensed registered nurses in just seven years and helped solve nursing shortages in Utah and neighboring states.

Like millions of refugees who have successfully rebuilt their lives in the United States, I’m proud to share my story. Yet I’m troubled by the Trump administration’s efforts to drastically cut refugee resettlements. This year, only 18,000 people — the lowest level since Congress created the program in 1980 — will be welcomed here. By contrast, 85,000 people were resettled here during Obama’s last year in office.

I’m honored to live in Utah, a state that annually accepts about 1,000 refugees, and I applaud Gov. Herbert’s recent letter to President Trump in which he asked permission to accept more refugees — in sharp contrast to Texas, whose governor announced last week it had pulled the welcome mat.

Herbert explained our state’s unique history of receiving refugees escaping religious persecution: Welcoming Mormons who fled the eastern United States 170 years ago defined Utahns as a people of empathy and moral obligation.

I’m not a Christian, but I know that story well. As a child, I was bullied for having a Jewish last name, and my grandparents had to observe their faith in secret to avoid detection by the Soviet state. We were lucky to get help from an American Jewish charity group and leave just as the Soviet Union was crumbling.

But the governor also made the point that’s increasingly supported by a mountain of data: Refugees contribute much more than they take. In 2017, the nearly 2.4 million refugees who have come to the United States earned more than $86 billion in income, paid more than $23 billion in taxes and held nearly $63 billion in spending power, according to New American Economy. And 13% of refugees start their own businesses, compared to just 9% of the US-born population.

After working as a supervisor — and later becoming an expert in revitalizing failing dialysis clinics in California – I realized I could make an impact inspiring others to do their best work. I earned an MBA at the University of California Berkeley and decided to combine my love of nursing with education. In 2012, I took the biggest risk of my career: co-founding a college focused just on nursing. We offer distance learning options and a new educational model that partners with health care organizations to develop a homegrown nursing workforce. Currently, we offer associate, bachelor and master degree programs and have enrolled more than 900 students across six states. We plan to add two new states this summer.

Refugees have a special spirit. We know how to endure hardship, and we take nothing for granted. As a group, we will continue to make our adopted homeland proud and prove Trump wrong. In the meantime, we Utahns salute our governor for his principled stand. Let’s hope that in the new year, we can welcome more good people escaping persecution who just want a safe place to call home.

Mikhail Shneyder

Mikhail Shneyder is the president and chief executive officer of Nightingale College, based in Salt Lake City.