SALT LAKE CITY — Deseret News reporter Gillian Friedman first became aware of the housing issue when she was exploring another issue — the struggles facing the women of The Women's Knitting Circle.
The Women's Knitting Circle is made up of eight Congolese women, refugees who have been relocated to Utah with their families and have one terrible thing in common: They are all victims of torture.
As Gillian wrote in her Oct. 12 story:
"Approximately 17,500 of the 50,000 refugees resettled in Utah have endured the unspeakable: repeated beatings, electric shocks, confinement in small cages, mock executions or being forced to witness the murder of family members."
So they come together once a week in search of comfort and normalcy, some fighting depression or PTSD. But as Gillian learned, it's not the only thing some refugees face. Surprisingly, some wonder if a return to the refugee camps would be better.
"The reason I was able to access this issue was through Utah Health and Human Rights helping the torture population," Gillian told me as she started digging deeper into the plight of these individuals and families. Poverty is ever-present. And a big contributor is the difficulty in finding affordable housing.
In today's Deseret News she chronicles the plight of George Ngunza, his wife Amisa and their 11 children. The family is also from the Congo and were desperate to leave violence and ultimately the refugee camp they called home for a remarkable 19 years. They sought the American dream.
As Gillian writes:
"Instead, this is Ngunza’s reality: He lives in a tiny, roach-infested apartment with his wife and 11 children. His job slicing meat at a local deli pays just above minimum wage, which barely covers his monthly rent, and leaves him precious little to feed and clothe his family.
"Instead of dreams, these days Ngunza only has fears – that he won’t be able to provide for his family’s basic needs and still keep a roof over their head.
“Just like in the camp,” he says, “I feel trapped all over again.”
Often we think of refugees as a single group. Surely there are things in common for those who flee war and strife for a better life. But each family has an individual story. And even though help is offered here in Utah, the lack of affordable housing is having a ripple effect that is keeping families and individuals in poverty. The threat of losing a roof over their heads is causing anxiety and daily grief.
One more excerpt:
"At the Road Home shelter, the Deseret News met a Congolese refugee family of 11 evicted from their apartment three months ago who have been unable to find another place to live.
"At an apartment complex in South Salt Lake, a single mother named Feliz, also from the Congo, has been unemployed for two months after losing her job as a maid at a downtown hotel, and she has struggled to find other work."
The story Gillian chronicles is not without hope. But it shines a light on just how crucial affordable housing is in helping people save a little money, perhaps for better transportation, that can lead to a better job, that can lead to a better life.
In a few weeks we will look at what it took for another family who arrived from a war-torn country earliar this year to make a new start in Utah.
Refugees are a worldwide issue. Survival, however, is an individual story. One we're passionate about understanding in order to find effective solutions.
Gillian's story today is another piece of understanding that puzzle.