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Women refugees in Utah encounter greater challenges to resettlement, U. panel says

SALT LAKE CITY — For any refugee, being out of harm's way is a whole different matter than being self-sufficient in the communities where they are resettled.

For refugee women, the challenges of resettlement are often greater than their male counterparts due to educational deficits and difficulties balancing traditional roles as wives and mothers, and new expectations of obtaining employment.

When it comes to getting a job, women are "extremely disadvantaged," said Yvette Young, who is earning her doctorate in sociology at the University of Utah.

"One of the things that comes up regardless of education, regardless of English-speaking ability, is that women take longer to find jobs in Utah, take longer to find a livable wage in Utah," said Young, who is researching and writing a dissertation on refugees and the employment sector.

"It's something of concern, especially when you think about that first job, the kinds of jobs that don't require skills. So it really shouldn't be a disadvantage to be a woman, but it is."

Young was part of a panel discussion Tuesday at the University of Utah's Lowell Bennion Community Service Center on the complexities of conflict and resettlement for women refugees.

Carine Foly, casework supervisor for the Salt Lake office of the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit refugee resettlement organization, said single mothers struggle to find work and learn English.

"Access to child care, that's also one of the challenges," she said.

Samira Harnish, executive director and founder of Women of the World, a Utah nonprofit organization that works one on one with women refugees to help them resettle and reach other goals, said learning English is of paramount concern.

"That's why in my organization we teach what we call practical English," she said.

The instruction helps women handle situations that arise in daily life, such as parent-teacher conferences or doctor appointments, Harnish said.

"I think it's the No. 1 thing," she said.

Yda Smith, director of graduate studies in the U.'s Division of Occupational Therapy, said older women refugees have even greater difficulty because they have little education, do not speak English and have no history of working outside the home.

"The elderly women tend to stay home and not know English, and they're not connected to their communities, they're kind of depressed and want to go back because they really have nothing to do. That's a population that's really hidden and has a lot of needs that are not being addressed right now," she said.

Young said she has conducted many interviews of women refugees as part of her research for her dissertation on employment issues. She has discovered that Muslim women face particularly steep barriers in finding work because of employers' dress code requirements.

"Technically, when you go to be employed, there are equal opportunity laws. You can't legally discriminate against race, religion and gender, but there are some subtle discriminations that are happening," Young said.

Some companies have dress codes that may require female employees to wear pants or insist that they not wear headscarves. The headscarf or hijab is a symbol of modesty and dignity.

"Some employers in the state will hire them and say it's OK for women to wear the scarf and a dress to work, and require them after the fact, after they've asked about this, to wear a specific uniform that violates their religious code. It's a little bit alarming," Young said.

"One employer even told an employee, 'You should become Mormon. If you're very religious, you don't have to have that religion. You should just become Mormon. You'll be more accepted and it will be easier for you get a job,'" she said.

Harnish said refugee women who are victims of sexual violence, domestic violence and struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder have mental health needs that need to be addressed to make successful transitions to their new lives in the United States.

All of the women on the panel expressed concern about recent public discourse about refugees suggesting their admission to the United States should be suspended.

The vetting process is intense, said Smith, who works with Karen refugees through the U.'s University Neighborhood Partnership. She has traveled to Thailand and Burma several times to learn more about how Karen people have lived to improve the partnership's programs.

"It's in the news right now that maybe we shouldn't be allowing these people into our country, when really it's the exact opposite," Smith said. "If you have any experience personally with people who are coming here in this situation, you would know they bring much more to us in wonderful ways than they take in benefits or whatever.

"They aren't taking our jobs away. They aren't evil people. They're kind, wonderful, amazing people that we can learn so much from. They bring us so much joy, really, when you start to interact with them. This fear, just being able to talk to people and say it's just unfounded, would be a really important thing to do right now," she said.