Piles of donated items fill the lobby at the Utah Refugee Center, a generous reminder of the ongoing needs of the 1,100 refugees from 20 countries who flee war and persecution in their native lands to make new homes in Utah each year. Most are victims of corrupt regimes, destroyed economies, or political or religious strife, and many of them are children.
Deb Coffey, Executive Director at the Center, looks at the avalanche of donations that cover the floor and tables. “Some of our people have witnessed horrific atrocities,” she says. “They have had to witness some really terrible things and now they’re trying to start their lives over.”
Making it easy for people to donate is one of the things the Center does best, and Utahns have generously stepped up to provide an influx of hope. Deb is most excited about the Center’s new mobile app that enables users to quickly identify and fill a need. The app went live in April and has received national and worldwide attention, resulting in an overwhelming response.
“We have opportunities that we hope will speak to a lot of people,” Deb says proudly. “The app differs from the website because it shows immediate ways that people can get involved and serve.” One example, according to Deb, is the opportunity to purchase and provide diapers for families with infants and toddlers. “Diapers are a very difficult commodity for refugees to purchase,” she says. “They’re very expensive and they fall outside of the public assistance that refugees get as new arrivals in our community.”
Working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Catholic Community Services (CCS), the Center provides basic needs and establishes a resettlement plan for each refugee family. Teaching life skills includes community and capacity building, leadership and language training, dancing and performing, and cultural orientation, among others.
Andre Muhimuzi is one of the Center’s many success stories. Andre, a teacher and welder by trade, fled his homeland in the Congo with his wife and seven children in 2002, after a prolonged period of civil war and economic collapse. When the State Department sent Andre and his family to Utah, the Center found them a place to live, helped them learn English, and assisted Andre in finding a job as a Multicultural Aide for Granite School District.
Speaking of his fellow refugees, Andre says, “There is a huge gap from where they are now to their expectations of themselves. Sometimes they need more time to fill that gap and bring themselves to a new level of hope.” With a soft voice and a heavy accent, Andre sums up the Center’s mission eloquently: “To help is not just giving to someone,” he observes, “helping them is teaching them to help themselves.”
The Utah Refugee Center is located at 2500 S State Street in Salt Lake City. To donate or volunteer, contact Madeleine at 801-871-5903, or download the “Serve Refugees” mobile app for iOS and Android.