A modest relocatable classroom located at Lincoln Elementary School in South Salt Lake houses the Serve Refugees Sharehouse – a crucial resource for thousands of refugees that didn’t exist before 2016. Donations like toiletry essentials, cleaning kits, and gas gift cards revolve in and out of the classroom – which added up to serve roughly 31,000 refugees in 2017. Items arrive from across the region, ranging from St. George all the way to Idaho, which says a lot about how welcoming the community is to refugees here in Utah.
“We don’t know of anything like this happening anywhere else in the nation. Normally an organization will collect donations and it stays within that organization. But the Sharehouse is open to the whole refugee community,” said Madeleine Aud, a Granite School District employee who helped get the Sharehouse off the ground.
Utah Refugee Connection posts on Facebook and Instagram about what’s needed and the community readily responds. Hundreds of donations are turned over every week and the Sharehouse is accessed a bit like a grocery store. But instead of cash, refugees who have attended English and computer classes, for example, are allowed to receive donations. The Sharehouse partners with organizations that offer educational programs for refugees like Women of the World and the Refugee Training and Education Center.
Refugee families are busy working multiple jobs and often caring for several children. Attending classes is a big sacrifice for these parents – especially when the weather is unpleasant and they’re on foot. But the Sharehouse rewards them for their hard work with valuable donations from the community and incentivizes them to keep going with their education.
Donations like diapers and laundry detergent are expensive to purchase and not covered by public assistance, so they’re like gold for these families. That means the life-supporting service the Sharehouse offers the refugee community isn’t duplicating services offered by other institutions like Utah Food Bank or Deseret Industries.
When the Syrian refugee crisis was prominent in the news media in 2016, there was a surge of interest among Americans about how they can help refugees who’ve landed in their area. During this time, there was an outpouring of donations and support from folks in Utah in part from a boost of interest following a General Conference address from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urging members to serve refugees. This media directed attention toward the roughly 65,000 refugees living here in Utah – refugees many locals didn’t even know were here.
About 70% of Utah’s refugees are in the Granite School District, so the Sharehouse is situated accessibly in the valley for many refugees. The entire program is a response to the community’s generosity. “People started calling and emailing like crazy asking how they could help,” said Madeleine.
“When we got started, we didn’t know if we’d be doing this for two more weeks, and now we’re going on our third year. And it’s all because of the generosity of individuals who bring in donations. The future of this program depends upon continued support from the community,” Madeleine said.
The Sharehouse manager, Kim Swain, was one of the community volunteers who showed up, in the beginning, asking to help sort donations that were coming in.
“On Thursdays, some Iraqi women bring us a plate of Baklava and a hot dish of meatballs to show their appreciation. They are so grateful for what they receive,” Kim said.
Many refugees want to show their appreciation and give back how they can. One particular refugee from Sudan, Zinab Adam, volunteers at the Sharehouse three days a week. Zinab came to Utah with her three boys in 2014, after spending over two years in a refugee camp in Egypt. Prior to that, she lived in Libya for 20 years as a refugee. She has been fleeing war most of her life.
Thanks to support from the International Rescue Committee, there was an apartment ready when she arrived. The IRC also helped her children get into school and supported them learning English. A caseworker with IRC helped her to understand the bus schedule and how to get groceries. And her kids now work part-time while attending school.
“Utah is more than my home because I found a safe place to live here. Everybody here has helped me. My original home is not a safe place.”
Zinab found the Sharehouse through her participation with the Sudanese Community of Utah. Originally, she gathered donations from the Sharehouse and brought them back to others in the Sudanese community.
She said, “to make it fair, if they give us something, we need to give them something, too. So I decided to be a helper and donate my time. Because I didn’t have money or possessions, but I could donate my time.”
Volunteering in the Sharehouse has helped Zinab to improve her English. She delights in meeting new people during her time there and has made strong friendships with the team who make the Sharehouse possible.
If you’d like to learn about more refugee success stories, visit ServeRefugees.org/Real-Stories. You can also find more stories on The New Americans of Salt Lake page on Facebook. And to contribute to the Sharehouse and the work the Utah Refugee Connection is doing, please visit ServeRefugees.org.
The Serve Refugees Sharehouse is located on the Lincoln Elementary Campus North Parking lot at 450 East 3700 South, South Salt Lake.