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Millcreek Journal

Granite School District’s refugee night combines philanthropy and fun

Sep 04, 2022 10:09AM ● By Lizzie Walie

By Lizzie Walje | [email protected]

 The challenges that refugee children face can often feel insurmountable. Especially when you consider that these children are tasked with learning about school both culturally and academically. Nevertheless, there are a growing number of resources available to refugees, which is one of the many reasons Granite School District continues to host its annual refugee night for incoming students and their families.

On a hot yet rainy evening in early August, families of refugee students, and students themselves, gathered at Granite Park Junior High School to partake in the night’s activities. Students and families were first prompted to enter the school’s gymnasium where a series of booths offered information and resources regarding everything from English courses to food pantry locations.

At one booth sat Tim Lewis, who was there on behalf of the Asian Association of Utah. Lewis and his fellow volunteer spoke highly of working with refugees saying, “There are a lot of great kids that (we) work with. So much of what we do is about finding out directly from (the refugees) how we can support their transitions. Even a seemingly small gesture can make a lasting impact.”

One such small gesture was the free backpack giveaway, designed to help alleviate purchasing school supplies. Children excitedly shuffled through multiple backpacks as they were prompted to pick one that they liked with their favorite color or design. The kids excitedly pranced around the grounds with backpacks of all hues.

While the organizations present at the event play a key role in helping refugees get established, most volunteers agree that the long-term success of refugees in the community hinges on those individuals feeling like they’re supported and welcome. It might not always seem like refugees make up a significant portion of our population, however, the actual numbers denote a sizable percentage. Refugee night further drives home the urgent need for community, especially in certain cultures where a strong and fortified network is crucial.

“It’s so vitally important for refugees in our community to feel like they belong. And they do belong. It might not seem so in day-to-day life when you’re walking down a Salt Lake City street but look at events like this where there are hundreds and hundreds of people present. This community is not only here, but they belong here. And that’s why refugee night is so important because it helps (families) know that they are both included and celebrated,” said a volunteer who was passing out free pizza.

Following the indoor portion of refugee night, students and families were ushered outside to enjoy the carnival where children could take pictures with actors dressed as Marvel movie characters, play games and navigate bouncy houses. Various food options included complimentary pizza and do-it-yourself snow cones.

As the night came to an end, even the incoming rainstorm couldn’t deter the high-spirited atmosphere. Events like refugee night are pertinent to creating an environment where refugees can connect, not just with one another, but with the community at large. Especially considering many of these refugees are fleeing nations where there is the constant looming threat of violence. According to Utah Refugee Connection, over 1,000 people attended refugee nights throughout the 2021, making these events pivotal for providing resources and camaraderie.

“These are our neighbors, your neighbors,” Lewis said, “and there are so many ways to get involved, volunteering for one. Even just getting to know more about refugees in the state of Utah is helpful.”

As of 2022, Utah Refugee Connection reports there are approximately 65,000 refugees living in Utah. Each year the president sets a ceiling for refugee admission. This ceiling is created after the president spends time consulting Congress and the United Nations, in addition to reviewing information provided by world refugee relief organizations. Since 2002, the ceiling has been set at a consistent 70,000 per year. However, the ceiling was changed for the first time in 2017, after the Trump administration cut the number down to approximately 23,000.

The refugee population in Utah is diverse, as our population of refugees come from 40-plus countries and speak 20-plus languages. For the past decade, Utah has welcomed over 1,000 refugees each year. However, following the ceiling drop in 2017, that number dwindled to 300. The largest groups of refugees in Utah come from Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia and Sudan.

All refugees will experience some degree of culture shock, regardless of where they are coming from. For certain individuals even daily activities like bathing, retrieving water, and using electricity are profoundly different. To help alleviate stress and promote a healthy transition, refugees rely on our established communities for guidance, acceptance and patience.

For those looking to get involved and volunteer, there are many ways to do so. Utah Refugee Connection recommends contacting their offices, or other organizations like the Asian Association, International Rescue Committee, and Catholic Community Services. From there, these organizations can assist you in finding the right program. 

“The overall message is of belonging, and they do belong,” the volunteer further explained. “America is a country built on the backs of immigrants, and to this day that remains true.”