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Guest opinion: “This the Place” is still true for Utah

Former refugee from Uganda, Ntezey Swalita, 19, listens to presentations during Catholic Community Services of Utah second annual refugee camp exhibit at Gallivan Plaza in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 10, 2019. Participants heard the personal stories fr
Former refugee from Uganda, Ntezey Swalita, 19, listens to presentations during Catholic Community Services of Utah second annual refugee camp exhibit at Gallivan Plaza in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 10, 2019. Participants heard the personal stories from refugees and learned about the conditions endured by refugees in camps across the world.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

One of my favorite parts of summer in Utah is the chance to celebrate Pioneer Day. This unique holiday commemorates the arrival of the first Latter-day Saint settlers — both men and women — whose hard work and determination created vibrant communities where they found a fresh start and made a lasting home.

Part of the celebration for the original pioneers was not just what they were headed toward, but what they had escaped: political persecution, religious intolerance, and in some cases, an extermination order. Utah was more than a destination — it was a refuge. Tragically, in some parts of the world, violence and terror still drive people from their countries. It’s fitting then that today Utah is home to more than 60,000 refugees, nearly half of whom are women and children.

Transitioning to a new home wasn’t simple for the pioneers, nor is it for modern-day refugees. In both cases possessions were abandoned, families were separated and people must start anew. Yet despite such setbacks, there is hope. If families are looking for safety, growth and opportunity, Utah is the place.

Recently Wallethub compared all 50 states across 49 key indicators of family-friendliness, including affordable housing, salary, education and “fun” (think proximity to parks and recreation facilities). Utah ranked in the top third at 17, making it an attractive destination for families. In fact, in the “Socio-economics” category, it is ranked No. 2. This considered factors like divorce rate, unemployment, job security and job satisfaction. The pioneers called their home “the Beehive state” and the title fits: Our industry and hard work have made Utah the third fastest growing state in the nation.

Like many native Utahns, I have ancestors who crossed the plains in search of a new home. Some left Nauvoo in that first wave, driven out by mobs and desperate for religious freedom and safety. A portion had wagons, but many literally walked and walked and walked. And when they arrived, their work had just begun. But there was a community to help. I know that our recent refugees also made arduous journeys to escape terror. One woman I have heard of fled the Rwandan genocide that took her father and brother’s lives. Her journey by foot first took her to refugee camps in Congo and then Uganda. With four children in tow, she landed in Salt Lake City a few years ago and has worked hard to find a home for her family. She has pushed herself to learn basic English and has done whatever jobs she could find to keep her family together. And, like my pioneer/refugee ancestors, she too had been aided by a community that respects her journey and wants to help her find safety and opportunity.

From its beginning, Utah has been a haven for people seeking safety and connectedness. As you celebrate the 24th, you may be tempted to think of this as an old-time holiday where we celebrate the past. But I argue that Pioneer Day is much more than sunbonnets and handcarts. Whether or not Brigham Young uttered these exact words, for so many of us, truly, this is still the place.