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'Welcoming community,' acts of kindness help refugees adjust to life in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — A week after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, more people are coming forward with information about the Russian immigrant brothers accused of the attack that killed three people and injured 170 others.

But Tamerlan Tsarnaev's own words reveal a disconnect with the United States.

“I don’t have a single American friend. I don’t understand them," he said in an interview prior to taking part in a Golden Gloves competition in Salt Lake City in 2009.

Tsarnaev and his family immigrated to the United States a decade ago.

Wisam Khudhair, an Iraqi refugee who resettled in Utah in 2010, says his experiences with Americans have been profoundly different.

People he has met working in Utah and Colorado have been genuinely interested in his background, he said. In many cases, that curiosity has evolved into friendships.

In the Middle East, most people’s perceptions of the United States and Americans are shaped by television news reports and, in recent years, interactions with service members “whose job is to fight,” government representatives and executives,” Khudhair said.

“When I came here, I saw something completely different. Americans are very nice. They are friendly. They like to help people,” he said.

That was important to Khudhair, who has had to start over in his career. Prior to coming to the United States, he had worked with American businesses until it became too risky for him to do so.

After resettling in Utah, he worked a number of low-wage jobs such as housekeeping, waiting tables, busing tables and parking cars in Utah and Colorado.

Monday was Khudhair's first day in his new position as a job developer for Catholic Community Services of Utah.

“I’m proud of myself because I start from the bottom and now I have something as good as before,” he said.

While his background is in accounting, Khudhair said he cannot afford to return to college. His new job not only marks a return to a white-collar position, but it enables him to help fellow other refugees.

“That’s what I learned from American people. They taught me to help people. That’s what I like about what I do,” he said.

Ellie Goldberg, executive director of Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, which serves refugee children and their families, said one’s ease in assimilating into life in America hinges on many factors.

“It depends on their background, their level of education, their level of familiarity with the Western world, the Western culture. It helps if they’re familiar with the financial system, the language, different things like that,” she said.

Gerald Brown, executive director of the state Office of Refugee Services, says an important tool a refugee needs to integrate in the United States is learning English.

More important, however, is developing friendships with Americans.

“I do believe making friends with refugees is the best thing you do for them. My whole office, the Department of Workforce Services, knows this to be true. Everything we do is meant to bring the welcoming community together with these survivors,” Brown said.

On June 22, World Refugee Day festivities will be held at Liberty Park, with the hope of exposing a larger audience to the estimated 50,000 refugees who live in Utah, most of them in Salt Lake County.

Once people hear their stories, they become strong advocates and want to reach out, Brown said.

"To be welcomed and know someone values you and wants you to be with them, that's everything," he said.

Brown said the refugee office pairs volunteers with refugee families to help guide them in their new lives. Resettlement services offered through Catholic Community Services and the Salt Lake office of International Rescue Committee, as well as the Asian Association of Utah, help make the transition to life in America more productive.

Brown says he believes mainstream Americans need to reach out to refugees. In Utah, they number some 50,000, according to a recent analysis of public assistance data conducted by the Department of Workforce Services.

“If you’re a Burundi lady that’s never studied in her own language and you don’t know how to turn on the lights, it’s kind of hard to expect that lady with little kids to come out and say to me, ‘Could you be my friend?’ I would want to go to her. I think it’s more of a mainstream responsibility,” he said.

Vladimir Martirosov, refugee resettlement case manager coordinator for Catholic Community Services, himself a refugee from Russia, said an immigrant’s ability to assimilate depends much on their attitudes when they arrive.

Most refugees adjust well, which Brown attributes to their remarkable resilience.

There are 17 million refugees worldwide, and less than 1 percent are resettled in the United States.

“You don’t make that journey without having a lot going for you and being very resilient,” he said.

But some people, particularly people who are well-educated and had careers in their home countries, are frustrated when their credentials aren’t recognized in the United States and they have to start over in low-wage, low-skill jobs.

Martirosov, for instance, held a high-ranking job in the Russian government in business development.

He eventually landed a job teaching mathematics at Salt Lake Community College.

“I was realizing my potential by 15 percent,” he said.

Martirosov now takes a different view of his life, he said. He enjoys helping refugees in his position with Catholic Community Services, and he takes particular pride in the accomplishments of his family.

“My family, my grandkids are doing well. That’s what makes me happy," Martirosov said.

Another challenge in families is that children tend to learn English more readily than their parents, which can upset the power structure in a family, he said.

“What respect will children have of such a parent?” Martirosov said.

Goldberg said many refugees come from countries that have corrupt governments and there are few personal liberties such as free speech.

“If we can develop trust with families and with kids, this can be a safe place,” she said of the Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, which is located in Taylorsville. “If they’re struggling with something, instead of holding it inside and then lashing out, we can talk about it.”

The accused Boston Marathon bombers, immigrants of Chechen heritage, are “outliers” in terms of their conduct and the elder brother’s experiences with Americans, she said.

The elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died following a shootout with Boston police early Friday morning. Some media reports say his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, struck him with a car while he was fleeing police.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, apprehended after a daylong manhunt Friday, could face the death penalty if convicted of using a weapon of mass destruction.

Many refugees encounter challenges in coping with a new culture and language, but most adjust well, Goldberg said.

“Most people do it beautifully. They’re very resilient,” she said.