The crowd started small, just a handful of individuals clumped at the Salt Lake International Airport Terminal One arrival gate. I shuffled into place alongside sign bearers donning scribbled welcome messages. A woman adjacent to me grasped a sign with the words “Welcome to your home, from a former refugee” written in both English and Farsi. As we approached the landing time, the crowd swelled to include children, former refugees, political activists, and an assortment of news reporters, all anxiously awaiting the arrival of a family coming from a Pakistani refugee camp. This family would be the last refugees granted access to Utah before the 120-day national immigration order took effect, which excludes refugees from entering the U.S.A. from predominately Muslim countries.
The applause erupted as Hassan Barat Ali Hassan, his wife Fozia Ramazan Ali Qurban, and their five children cleared the security doors. While cameras and well-wishers shadowed the family to the luggage carousel, I held back from the action and scanned the crowd for a Catholic Community Services (CCS) representative to explain the next steps for this family. While this warm airport welcome was a momentous event, it is important to consider the less frequently asked question: what happens when the cameras are packed away and a new refugee family leaves the airport? And, what is my role as a United Way Community School Director to ensure the new family’s transition is seamless?
The family’s Utah resettlement journey is led by one of United Way’s refugee support partner
agencies, either International Rescue Committee or, in this family’s case, Catholic Community Services. Catholic Community Services transitions the family into their new apartment and connects them to a case manager. Their children are then enrolled into Granite School District’s Tumaini Center. Tumaini, which translates to “hope” in Swahili, is a program for K-12 newcomers enrolling in a U.S. school for the first time. The two-week instructional program provides students foundational guidance on what to expect in a U.S. school, from locker combinations to lunchroom procedures to English language learning classes. I was excited to learn that upon completing courses at the Tumaini center, the family I greeted at the airport will be enrolling at my school, Woodrow Wilson Elementary, in a few weeks.
We are not strangers to the refugee resettlement process at Woodrow Wilson Elementary. Similar to other South Salt Lake schools, much of our student body includes refugee students, with 47 different language spoken at Woodrow. As a Community School Director in South Salt Lake, I am tasked with collaborating with partner agencies to address the needs of our families. The international diversity in South Salt Lake is a strength of our school, but also creates social services chasms that require thoughtful solutions. Our families are frequently overcoming past traumas while simultaneously facing new language barriers and fighting to understand how our school system in the U.S. functions. Our unique population requires equally unique solutions.
Community partners and individuals at the school have already rallied and are busily preparing for the arrival of our newest refugee family. The family moved into an apartment complex in close proximity to Hser Ner Moo, one of Promise South Salt Lake’s 14 community-based family centers. Hser Ner Moo offers citizen and English classes for parents and afterschool and teen programming for children. Students in Woodrow’s afterschool program have crafted “welcome” signs to usher in our newest arrivals. Woodrow’s ESL teachers will offer an afternoon “Newcomers Class” to teach introductory English that aligns with students’ classroom curriculum. Connections with Granite Education Foundation will provide for the family’s basic needs, and Westminster College has made financial donation for this final refugee family to fill any gaps family may experience.
In the process of preparing for our newest arrivals, Woodrow has also identified areas for improvement. While we currently have a process in place to enroll recently arrived refugees into our school, Woodrow lacks continued transitional support. Such support is necessary since several of our students have never attended a formal school and are overwhelmed within their first months of transition. After recently bringing key school and community leaders to the table, we are in the process of rolling out a “Newcomer Buddy” system for recent U.S. arrivals enrolled at Woodrow. The system will involve matching newly arrived international or English Language Learning (ELL) students with a 6th grade “buddy” who is familiar with Woodrow Wilson and speaks the same language. The 6th grade buddy will give a complete school tour, sit in the new student’s class to translate and guide the new student throughout their first day. The buddy will then continue to touch base with the newly enrolled student weekly throughout the school year. We hope the new program provides an innovative and mutually beneficial solution by creating leadership opportunities for our 6th graders while also filling an identified gap in our school programming to transition newcomers.
Hassan Barat Ali Hassan and his family may have generated the greatest publicity and attention. However, they are a symbol and reminder of how we should be supporting all of our refugee families throughout Utah.
YOU CAN HELP!
To find out how you can learn more and provide help, please dial 2-1-1 or visit uw.org/211 to research volunteer opportunities that will directly connect you to refugee families in need.
Also, for more photos and info, please visit this Salt Lake Tribune article.