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Will Utah help fund refugee services?

A state-managed nonprofit agency is under consideration

Somalian refugees Amain Mohamed, left, Kowsai Mohamed, Omar Lul and Rawi Awad look over the renovated Utah Capitol on Friday.
Somalian refugees Amain Mohamed, left, Kowsai Mohamed, Omar Lul and Rawi Awad look over the renovated Utah Capitol on Friday.
Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

Elham Makedeh's 1 1/2-year-old son, Parsa Seysan, cheerfully waved fliers as Makedeh's eyes explored the newly renovated Capitol rotunda.

The refugees from Iran, persecuted because of their Baha'i faith, have been in Utah just seven months. They were among about 40 refugees who toured the Capitol recently with International Refugee Committee, one of Utah's two refugee resettlement agencies.

"It's so amazing to see how people love me, how people accept me," Makedeh said in Farsi through an interpreter. "I'm proud to be part of the community. It's not so easy to go to parliament in Iran."

Nazanin Nourmohammadi, a case manager for International Rescue Committee and an Iranian refugee herself, said it's fitting that refugees should visit the Capitol to experience open government.

"Coming here is an experience," she said. "They're welcome."

The visit comes as lawmakers are considering whether to add state funding to Utah's refugee services, and a state-managed nonprofit agency is under consideration.

Rep. Christopher Herrod, R-Provo, said he's sponsoring HB336 to provide a way for the public to make charitable donations to the Department of Workforce Services's refugee service office.

"I would hope that it would fill any gaps," Herrod said. "These people come from very dire circumstances. ... They don't have the family support."

The proposal is modeled after a nonprofit in Illinois. Herrod said oversight is an important part of what would be called the Refugee Services Fund. An advisory committee would include stakeholders from the refugee community to state agencies. The bill's fiscal note is $20,000 for fiscal year 2009 and $30,000 for 2010.

Currently, there is no state funding for refugee services, which are administered largely using federal funds. The governor's budget requests $200,000 for Department of Workforce Services to fill in gaps in federal services. That agency is already bolstering its refugee services by going from one person to an office using existing federal funding.

Nourmohammadi said state funding can only help in issues such as housing, which are critical for refugees. As an example, she said a family of four qualifies for less than $600 in federal cash assistance.

"That cash assistance cannot even pay half the rent," she said. "If they are short, they are going to be in trouble."