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Thousands of refugees relocated to Utah after evacuating homelands

By Nkoyo Iyamba | Posted - Mar 7th, 2013 @ 8:30pm

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SALT LAKE CITY — The United States has received an unprecedented influx of refugees fleeing their homelands in the past two months, and hundreds of them have been recently relocated to Utah. Many are escaping their native countries because of war, political unrest and persecution.

"Families have been separated by war," said Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services. "Mothers with their children coming to the United States and struggling with the life in the United States."

Utah refugee advocacy groups are resettling roughly 600 refugee families during the first part of the 2012-2013 fiscal year; that's already half the state's budgeted capacity.

"The refugee resettlement is a life-saving program," Batar said. "Refugees are survivors. They've been through a lot."

Batar said that the highest number of newly arriving refugees in Utah come from Somalia, Iraq and Burma. He said the political unrest in many of the war-torn countries makes it more difficult to process paperwork for refugee families to leave the country and relocate, which has kept some families waiting for years.

Pressure from advocacy groups finally sped up the process of completing criminal background checks and health screenings and it has allowed many of the refugees to finally relocate in the United States, including Utah.

One of those families is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Caroline Basongo was relocated to Utah with her family in 2012. She is a single mom with five young kids. Her family escaped from the Democratic Republic of Congo 10 years prior, and lived in the refugee camps in neighboring Rwanda.

Families have been separated by war. Mothers with their children (are) coming to the United States and struggling with the life in the United States.

–Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services

"There is a war," Basongo said. "After war, the situation in Congo is not good."

During that time of political unrest in her country, Basongo's husband disappeared and her family still doesn't know where he is.

"It's very difficult for me but I believe in God," said Basongo. "Every day I ask God to give me courage."

As rebel forces continue to incite violence in the DRC, The Utah Refugee Services Office reports that approximately 15,000 refugees from the DRC will be resettled in the United States over the next few years -- a significant amount will resettle in Utah.

Basongo still communicates with other relatives in the DRC, but she said she is grateful to be away from the violence.

"Life here is good," she said.

And like other Utah moms, she's busy volunteering at her kids' school and shuttling them to soccer and basketball practices. She provides for her family by teaching French part-time at a Salt Lake Elementary School. Her kids say they're adjusting well to life in America.

"Life here is better than the life in Rwanda," said Eric Basongo, her 15-year-old son. "Here, there are better schools."

He likes to play soccer, enjoys his science and math homework, and one day hopes to be a doctor.

While they may be adjusting well to schools, Basongo's kids are still trying to get used to the cold and Utah's frigid winters.

"Here there is snow," said Grace Basongo, 8. "And in Rwanda there is no snow."

Refugee advocacy groups say the life of a refugee is like living in a constant state of limbo, but families have a chance to lead successful lives once they're resettled.

"If Caroline were to stay in the refugee camp in Rwanda," said Batar. "Her children would not have the bright future that they have here. They wouldn't have the opportunity to go to school. She wouldn't have the opportunity to get a chance to support her family."

There are roughly 15 million refugees in the world and less than one percent will be resettled, explained Batar. The United States Department of State reports a resettlement budget for roughly 70,000 refugees to be relocated to cities around the U.S.

Life here is better than the life in Rwanda. Here, there are better schools.

–Eric Basongo, 15-year-old refugee from the DRC

"The U.S. is one of the generous countries that takes 70,000 (refugees) every year," said Batar. "And then Canada and Australia and some of the European countries take less than 50,000."

Utah refugee resettlement organizations like Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City resettle about 1,200 families in cities across Utah each year. For refugee families, home is where they're relocated. Once refugees are resettled, Batar said they are taught to become self-sufficient through community programs and services.

"A lot of the refugees, they don't want to live on welfare, I can attest to that," Batar said. "All they want is to provide for their families."

Batar said about 70 percent of refugees that are resettled obtain jobs within the first 6 months of arrival to Utah.

"We get support from the community, like the churches and the volunteers," Batar said. "People are helping so these new Americans that are coming don't become a burden on the community."

Batar himself is a refugee who left Somalia with his wife and kids 19 years ago. His oldest son died during the war and political unrest at the time.

"I am more proud to be American than Somali," Batar said. "Because they kicked me out and I still cannot go back because my safety would be in jeopardy."

Batar was a trained lawyer in Somalia but when he arrived in Utah, he said it took a few years to re-establish himself. He said he learned English and started his legal education again to become a licensed attorney in the U.S.

"When I left my country I had one thing in mind, I just wanted to go to a safer place to raise my family and start a new life," Batar said. "I knew there would be challenges but I was ready to tackle that challenge."

Now Batar has a staff at Catholic Community Services that includes refugees who know and understand the challenges new refugee families will face as they arrive in Utah.

Batar is confident that having that type of support will help newly arriving refugees successfully start a new life here in Utah.


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