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Immigrants, LDS Humanitarian Services honored for community contributions

SALT LAKE CITY — For immigrants and refugees who come to the United States, aspiring to the American dream is among the common objectives they often share. For those that have chosen to make Utah home, some have dedicated their lives to giving back to the place that has allowed them to attain that lifelong goal.

The Salt Lake Chamber Wednesday recognized the contributions "that immigrants make every day in Utah" during a ceremony at the American Dream Awards in downtown Salt Lake City. The award recognizes "the positive impact immigrants have on our community and how they have helped shape Utah's history, values and beliefs."

The honorees include Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement at Catholic Community Services; Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City and vice president of community development at Zions Bank; Valter Nassi, owner and proprietor of Valter's Osteria; and LDS Humanitarian Services, a branch of the Welfare Services department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A native of the West African nation of Somalia, Batar fled his homeland after his eldest son died during violence resulting from a civil war. Batar hid his family for two years before eventually fleeing to Utah, becoming the first refugees from Somalia to resettle in the Beehive State.

After spending two years studying at Utah State University, the Batar family moved to Salt Lake City where he took a job with Catholic Community Services helping with refugee resettlement. In 2001 he became director of the refugee program and continues to lead the organization's efforts to resettle refugees in the Salt Lake area.

"I am honored to receive this award," he said. "Refugees contribute to this country greatly, and they are the ones who help build this country. More than ever now, refugees need a place that can welcome them."

He noted that millions of refugees are at risk around the world and are without a safe place to call home.

"The United States has a 'moral obligation' to help those that are in need because if we send them back to where they come from, it's a 'death sentence,'" Batar said. "I'm one of the lucky ones that were given their life and I'm here today to pay it back to the community that welcomed me."

Escamilla was the first Latina elected to the Utah Senate and the first immigrant elected to the Utah Legislature. Since emigrating from Mexico to Utah 22 years ago, she has spent many years involved in various causes, including social justice, gender equality and racial equity.

"To be recognized for the fact that you're a pioneer — which for Utah has a lot of symbolism — it's an honor," she said.

Escamilla also lauded the chamber for "taking a stand" in favor of immigrants and refugees in a climate where doing so isn't always popular politically.

"Opportunities like this are critical because we are able to humanize individuals (who may be immigrants or refugees)," she said. "As a society, we'd be better off if we were able to sit down and see more of a human side (of people) than a political affiliation or religious affiliation."

She said immigrant stories are the stories of virtually all Americans at some point in their lineage, and something nearly everyone can identify in their ancestry.

"We can all share our own pioneer story," Escamilla said. "It may be a fourth-generation pioneer story (like mine) or you being the (first generation) pioneer of that story. That's what is so powerful about this award and why it means so much."

Nassi, an award-winning restaurateur with experience in Europe, Africa and various cities in the U.S., was born in Italy. He designed, developed and implemented the operation of many establishments in Salt Lake City, including Cucina Toscana and Il Sansovino.

Over the years, Nassi has received Salt Lake Magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award and the Tourism Achievement Award from the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The LDS Church's Humanitarian Services department was recognized Wednesday for providing aid to people around the world regardless of cultural or religious affiliation. The organization states that 100 percent of every dollar donated is used to help those in need without regard to race, religion or ethnic origin.

The chamber's top executive said acknowledging the selfless efforts of individuals and entities that support those new to Utah recognizes the good works being done to enhance the state.

"These awards help remind all of us about the positive impact immigrants have on our local communities," said Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. "Through their hard work, innovation, integrity and dedication, the immigrants that we are honoring today have all made Utah a better place."