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Goat Project gives East African refugees a sense of home, future opportunity

SHARE Goat Project gives East African refugees a sense of home, future opportunity

SALT LAKE CITY — The birthing shed is full of new kids and East African refugees Gustave Deogratiasi and Hussein Aden can't help but smile.

The baby goats, of course, are adorable. Better yet, the vast majority of the kids are healthy and will be great additions to a growing herd of goats managed by the East African Refugee Goat Project of Utah.

A herd that started with about a dozen goats two years ago will likely number 300 by end of summer, the number needed to start making money by renting goat herds for weed control and selling goat meat, which is in growing demand in Utah. Proceeds from the micro-enterprise will fund programs for East African refugee youth and women and provide college scholarships.

Aden, who was resettled in Utah from Somalia, said the goats remind him of home. "It is good. It reminds me of the goats we used to have in Africa," he said.

Many of the goats in the project herd are Boer, a breed native to Africa that was first imported to the United States in the mid-1980s. Boer are meat goats that have a high resistance to disease.

The Goat Project's bumper crop of kids is a testament to the breed's high fertility rates.

Since March 3, trained volunteers have worked around the clock in four-hour shifts to assist Deogratiasi, the project coordinator, during kidding season at the Goat Project's ranch. About 50 kids have been born since.

"This is the best herd of goats I've seen in a long, long time," said Steve Burton, of Levan Ridge Farm, a sheep and goat rancher who is a volunteer adviser to the partnership.

Other partners of the Goat Project include International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency, Rio Tinto Utah Copper, Utah State University Extension and the state Refugee Services Office.

The goat herd lives on Kennecott land and provides weed control for their landlord. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donates hay to supplement the goats' diets.

Burton and Utah State University Extension lend their professional expertise and an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer helps with the daily work of the budding micro-enterprise.

The Goat Project has been five years in the making. Gerald Brown, director of the state Refugee Services Office, said a rancher from Delta approached his office with the idea in 2009.

"He wanted to raise goats and he wanted to help refugees. He wanted to know if anyone was interested," Brown said.

So Brown surveyed refugee communities in Utah. Somali Bantu, Burundi and Somali Bajuni leaders told Brown they wanted to participate, hoping a goat herd would someday provide them meat.

"You do not find it in the (grocery) market," Deogratiasi said.

A group from Salt Lake, who included leaders of refugee communities, traveled with Brown to Delta.

"It became very apparent it was just too far away," Brown said.

"We tried two or three different things. There was a possibility in Morgan that fell through, but we kept trying. Eventually, we met the people we needed to meet to make this work."

International Rescue Committee's Salt Lake office offered to be the umbrella nonprofit agency "and it's taken off from there," Brown said.

The three refugee communities that started with the project stuck with it.

"Right now they're doing it on faith. They still come out and work and it's socialization for them," Brown said.

Refugees have built much of the infrastructure on the land, which includes fences, pens and the birthing sheds.

"They are going to believe it when one of two things happen: One is they are able to get goat meat. So far, that hasn't happened very much. The second one is, when we start making money and we can start having programs for their kids. Mostly, they're doing it on blind faith. They believe me and they believe their leaders," Brown said.

Aden, a Somali Bantu, said the project has been a long time coming, but he believes it will benefit the youth through scholarships and other programs.

"We have been looking for this opportunity for such a long time," he said.

Burton got involved when an IRC employee who knew about his ranch him asked if he might be able to help the Goat Project.

"You know how it is. You say 'OK' and it becomes a full-time job," Burton said, smiling.

Burton said he had no experience working with refugees, but he has come to know them as honest, hard-working people.

One of his first experiences involved a small group of refugees who came to his ranch to buy meat goats. They weighed the goats and then slaughtered them in the halal ritual prescribed in Islamic law.

Once the goat carcasses were prepared, the men realized they had not paid Burton enough for one of the goats.

The men had small incomes and were likely on food stamps, Burton said. But they scrambled to put together the cash they owed Burton.

"From that day on, I knew if they said something, you can take it to the bank," he said.

Patrick Poulin, executive director of IRC's Salt Lake office, said the micro-enterprise has become a hot topic in the refugee services community.

"I was in a meeting with Jon Pierpont, (executive director of the Department of Workforce Services) Gerald Brown's boss, and all we talked about for the first 10 minutes were the goats," he said.

Spending time at the ranch during kidding season is an added bonus, Poulin said.

"This is my mental health work. I love to come out here and get outside with the goats."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com