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Congolese refugee shares her journey during International Human Rights Day observance

SALT LAKE CITY — After escaping war and the resulting humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Antoinette Uwanyiugira was suspicious of police when she resettled in Utah.

"In Congo, when you see the police, you see the enemy. They're going to kill you," she said.

It took a workshop offered through Salt Lake City's Office of Diversity and Human Rights to help the Congolese refugee better understand the role of law enforcement.

"In the United States, the police are here to protect you. If you have a problem, you go to the police. Don't be afraid. Ask for help," she said.

Uwanyiugira, speaking at an observance of Human Rights Day at the University of Utah on Tuesday night, said the city's Human Rights Education Project helped her adjust to life in Utah.

"Utah is my home. My children will stay in Utah," she said.

Sabina Zunguze, who heads the city's Human Rights Commission, noted that the day was occasion to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela, the first president of South Africa to be elected in the country's first fully representative election, as well as a time to celebrate Human Rights Day.

Tuesday was the 65th anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly's proclamation that established the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the common standard of achievement for all people and all nations.

The celebration, held at the U. College of Social Work, included dance performances by the Malialole Dance Group, catering by Spice Incubator Kitchen, which is run by refugee entrepreneurs who prepare food from their home countries, and a silent auction. The event was a fundraiser for the education project.

Funds raised at the event will be used to pay for interpreters for workshops for refugees and immigrants on issues such as workers’ rights, workplace safety, gangs, sexual violence prevention, and criminal justice topics such as interacting with police officers and the judicial system.

More than 1,500 refugees and immigrants in Salt Lake City have attended the workshops since May 2012, said Yolanda Francisco-Nez, coordinator of the Office of Diversity and Human Rights. Instruction has been offered in 11 languages for refugees from 15 countries, including Sudan, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Bhutan and Somalia.

Proceeds from Tuesday night's event also will be used to produce legal rights booklets for members of the city's refugee and immigrant communities, Francisco-Nez said.

The overarching goal of Salt Lake City’s Human Rights Education Project is to help all residents “feel welcome and protected,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker in a statement.

“We hope to see this program grow and reach even more individuals in the future,” he said.

Classes are offered in an array of public buildings in the city to help immigrants and refugees become familiar with municipal and educational services.

“We’re hoping that our refugee populations can also feel welcome in these places. City Hall belongs as much to them as you and I,” Francisco-Nez said.

For instance, Salt Lake City police officers host workshops on law enforcement in the city’s new public safety building.

“We have some really great police officers who conduct their workshops hands-on. They do a lot of role playing. They (participants) really enjoy that. A lot of youth attend,” she said.

Living within a system of laws and processes can be confusing for refugees. If a refugee receives a traffic ticket, they may not understand that they have to go to court to resolve the violation. If they’re pulled over again, they could be arrested, Francisco-Nez said.

“There are simple things like that are some of the very basic elements of our society that our refugees are unaware of. Often they will find themselves in deeper trouble if they don’t address certain areas of their life,” she said.

City officials hope to expand the trainings, which refugees and immigrants say have helped them better integrate to their new country.

“Most of the evaluations we're getting back show a really high approval rating, as well as the need for more workshops,” Francisco-Nez said.

While the workshops provide an important knowledge base, “the best thing you can do is befriend a refugee. They’re some of the hardest working people," she said.

Refugees and immigrants come from “such adverse circumstances," Francisco-Nez said.

“It’s also helped me be aware of my own privilege in helping people. I love what I do,” she said.