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Formal study of refugees in Utah examines opportunities for education, employment

A Brigham Young University education professor, himself a former African refugee, has coauthored the first formal study of the status of international refugees in Utah.

Macleans Geo-JaJa, who teaches courses on the economics of education and international development in the David O. McKay School of Education, and Garth Mangum, Max McGraw professor emeritus at the University of Utah, quantified trends regarding refugees, gathered data on their living conditions and progress, and drew conclusions.

"The essence of this research is to examine how well we as a state are doing in terms of delivering culturally sensitive services to refugees and helping them achieve social and economic integration into the system," said Geo-JaJa, who fled violence in his native Nigeria in the early 1970s. After spending some of his teenage years with his family in Kentucky, he later taught at a university in his homeland. "This is a reference point for future research coming out on refugees in this state. Government policy and recommendations will reference this work."

While current political debate has focused attention on immigration, international refugees enter the United States under different conditions. They are legally welcomed to the country through a State Department program that offers resettlement assistance to about 50,000 people each year escaping persecution in their homelands. Geo-JaJa and Mangum reviewed the experiences of the around 700 refugees who settle in Utah, almost all in Salt Lake County, each year.

The countries of origin of the refugees in Utah reflect the world's trouble spots over the last decade: Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East and more. Most refugees have little to no English language skills and cultural familiarity with America when they arrive. Because many have spent significant portions of their lives in refugee camps, they can lack education and work experience even in their home countries. They are, however, welcomed by public and private resettlement agencies that help in their initial transition to American life. The peer-reviewed study, published by the Center for Public Policy and Administration at the University of Utah, sought to evaluate how effectively various programs support the state's new residents on the path to education, employment, and assimilation into society.

Funded by a McKay School grant, Geo-JaJa mentored two master's candidates in gathering data for the project. The pair interviewed about 100 refugees in the Salt Lake valley from countries such as Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan, cataloging their responses on issues related to opportunities for housing, education, employment and health care. Many of the respondents recalled incidents of violence and the death of family members, followed by years spent in limbo status in refugee camps, before coming to the United States.

Noting the importance of education in empowering refugees to eventually become self-sufficient, Geo-JaJa and Mangum focused their study on opportunities for learning, and particularly on the initial challenge faced by newcomers to Utah: developing English skills.

"Education is a key to mitigating poverty and enhancing development," Geo-JaJa said. "Education affords the individual his human dignity."

The researchers found that English as a Second Language programs (ESL) are adequeat for refugees who are capable of attending during the daytime out of their homes, but insufficient for the many who must work during the day and/or care for children and lack transportation. The authors cite an ESL program underway in a housing complex and a program that trains limited numbers of volunteers to teach ESL in homes as examples of directions this emphasis on timing and location can take to increase effectiveness.

"To us, ESL is a key integrator that has not received enough attention in terms of its delivery," Geo-JaJa said. "It should be consumer-friendly."

The study notes the challenges faced by public schools when seeking to help refugee children, some of whom don't even know their own age, and many of whom lack any previous schooling. The authors point out the effectiveness of the Granite School District's Newcomer Academy, a program devoted specifically to refugee children, and the benefits of an environment established by a teacher sensitive to cultural issues. Even regularly mispronouncing a refugee child's name can have a long-term negative impact, Geo-JaJa said.

Among other topics included in the study, the authors showed that more than two-thirds of the respondents interviewed for the study were in jobs paying wages below the poverty line. Against that backdrop, they found that the State Department's practice of requiring refugees to pay back the cost of their air travel to the United States is placing a severe burden on refugee families.

The study also notes that state and private agencies serving refugees could benefit from addtional funding to employ more case workers and offer more programs.

The study is accessible to policy makers at the state, county and city government levels, as well as by school district and non-profit officials. Geo-JaJa is supplying its data and conclusions to the state's refugee resettlement study group, of which he is a member.

"I hope we as a society of Utahns can embrace our new neighbors with love and mentor them as they develop successful lives in our state," he said.

Writer: Aaron Searle


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