An obscure neighborhood park near the center of the Salt Lake Valley has undergone a $140,000 renovation to provide a safe place for local children to play. Most of those kids are refugees, or children of refugees, many from Muslim countries.
It isn’t clear if Omar Mateen (the man who killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub) was somehow influenced by his upbringing as the child of immigrant parents, but it is clear that children who come here as refugees and who are shunned, marginalized and kept out of mainstream life are more likely to be involved in crime, less involved in school and perhaps more susceptible to radical ideological influences.
The renovation of Sunnyvale Park in Salt Lake County stands as a small but eloquent pronouncement of our community’s desire to work toward helping immigrant children assimilate into our culture. There are an estimated 2,000 refugee families living near the park. Many are from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, places from which there are now calls in the political arena to ban migration to America. But in the Sunnyvale neighborhood, kids from those countries are playing soccer, scrambling over playground equipment and generally acting like all children act while at play, unburdened by the harsh realities that may attend to their personal backgrounds. It is a healthy and hopeful environment, the kind we should encourage and work to nurture.
Salt Lake County spent $70,000 to fix up the park. The rest of the money came from federal urban development grants. It is money well spent, giving a large number of displaced families the kind of nearby gathering place most Americans take for granted. As Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said at the reopening of the park, it is the community’s offering to the refugee population of “a safe place to have fun and learn what it means to be a Utahn and an American.”
In the wake of the attack in Orlando, it is a simple though powerful notion. Giving a facelift to a neighborhood park is a small gesture, but one that can leave a large footprint. It is a symbol of welcome and a promise of inclusion to people who have come here to escape dark and sinister forces. People fleeing from terror and extremism are not automatically harbingers of more terror and extremism. Not if they are integrated into the larger community and exposed to the mores and values that place hope and opportunity over fear and suspicion.