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Agency scrambles to meet refugees’ needs

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SOUTH SALT LAKE — One family needed rest and privacy to continue their grieving.

Another family needed counseling and time to think about the apparent inconceivable actions of their son.

A third group of men from Myanmar, formerly Burma, needed a new home and someone to ensure their safety after police initially arrested them on suspicion of homicide.

The man in charge of refugees for Utah's primary resettlement agency spent Thursday trying to meet the needs of a refugee community reeling from the murder earlier this week of one of their own — it seems at the hand of one of the victim's countrymen.

"It's too much, it's just too much," said Aden Batar, head of refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services.

Batar and others scrambled to coordinate counseling and other services for both the family of 7-year-old Hser Nay Moo, who police believe died Monday afternoon, and the family of Esar Met, 21, who is charged in her death.

The girl's body was found just 50 yards from her home in another apartment occupied by five refugees from Myanmar. Met had arrived in Utah only one month ago and lived with the other four men in apartment 472 where the girl was found.

Even before apartment managers tacked a note to the door of 472 evicting all occupants for "criminal activity on the premises," officials had found the other four men a new home.

"It was our decision to move them out for their safety," Batar said.

In a flurry of activity, Batar worked to monitor police progress on the case, volunteers and donations streaming into his agency and the health of families in South Salt Lake. Valley Mental Health and the Utah Human Rights Project both offered counseling services for the families and other residents of the South Salt Lake complex.

To understand the impact of this crime, one must understand the dynamics of communities where refugees live in Utah.

Batar and his staff placed Met at the modest apartment complex on 500 East because it already was home to many refugee families. Young people from Sudan, Somalia and several other countries played together at the complex.

There were eight families from Myanmar living there. This community was supposed to provide a support system for Met and others, Batar said.

Met was taking English classes and waiting for his United States Social Security Number so he could get a job, Batar said. There were no warning signs about him.

"This tragedy could have happened to anyone," he said.

Refugees get a wide net of services when they come from their countries to the United States.

They are placed in apartments and given medical services, food, a caseworker to helps them get jobs, English lessons and schooling. Maybe the most important part of their orientation are classes to help them understand American culture and ways of life.

"But it does take time for some refugees to understand the issues," Batar said.

Both Moo's and Met's family lived for years in refugee camps in Thailand before coming to Utah. Their relocation to America is not unique for people who have fled Myanmar and its government's human rights abuses.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 140,000 refugees from Myanmar are expected to come to the U.S. from nine Thai-administered refugee camps along the border of Thailand and Myanmar. Most of the refugees are ethnic minority Karen and Karenni.

As a result of conflict between the government and insurgent groups, Myanmar's army has mounted a counter-insurgency campaign that included forced labor, arbitrary executions, destruction of food crops, and forced relocation of villages, according to Human Rights Watch.

The refugee population in the camps has expanded from little more than 20,000 in the 1980s to more than 120,000 today. About 10,299 refugees from Myanmar have been resettled to the United States since 2006, according to the commission.

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com