Want to find the American spirit — the kind that built the West, innovated its way to new wealth and forged productive lives from what other nations might have considered wretched refuse? Look no further than refugees.

Six young refugees who made their way to Utah — some recently and some several years ago — shared a stage at a United Nations Conference at Utah Valley University on Wednesday. When asked what sort of misperceptions they have encountered from Americans whose families have been here for generations, Dona Ibrahim, of Somali descent, born in Saudi Arabia and resettled in Utah at a young age, didn’t hesitate.

“I will say one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about refugees and immigrants is that people think that we’re lazy and unmotivated, and I hear that a lot,” she said. “But, that’s clearly not the case because we all know how the grass is on the other side, and it’s definitely not greener, and the fact that we got the opportunity to come to this country and build the framework of our lives from the ground up — that kind of person wouldn’t be lazy and unmotivated. 

“We are some of the most hard-working people, some of the most passionate people, and we are probably a little bit over-ambitious, so I’ve heard.” 

The panel proved her point eloquently. Ibrahim is a graduate of the University of Utah with a degree in film and media arts. She is now an associate writer and video editor for Cartoon Network. 

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Chit Chit Poe, a 17-year-old girl who admits to worrying about relatives she left behind in Myanmar when her family fled to Thailand, wants to become a physician’s assistant. Silvain Sangano, a 19-year-old whose family fled genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo and struggled for years against prejudice in Rwanda, wants to graduate from high school this year and pursue a degree in engineering. 

Panel moderator Robert Skinner, from the United Nations Department of Global Communications, left, listens to high school student refugee Seyyed Ahmadi of Afghanistan, second from right. Fellow refugee Dona Ibrahim, of Saudi Arabia, second from left; and Alexandra Zubko, a beautician from Ukraine, listen during the Why It Matters conference at Utah Valley University in Orem on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. The conference, running Oct. 5-7, will feature leading academic experts speaking on the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, according to the UVU website. | Utah Valley University

Tamin Solhadost fled Afghanistan when American forces pulled out last year. He’s working for a financial tech company as a quality assurance associate. Seyyed Ahmadi, also from Afghanistan, works full time and attends high school. His hope is to attend UVU’s aviation program. 

And Alexandra Zubko, who reluctantly left Ukraine this year when war broke out, and who speaks glowingly about the beauties of Utah, wants to continue the career she had as a beautician and raise money to help her native country defeat Russia.

They are much the same as other refugees I’ve met through the years: focused, hard-working and eager to praise the country that has finally given them peace and freedom.

How Utah stacks up against other state legislatures’ efforts to help refugees

Utah Valley University keeps reminding this remote, landlocked Western state that the world, and all its issues, are right here with us. Earlier this year, the university hosted a China Summit that attracted some of the brightest minds from business and government together to discuss and strategize over policies concerning China relations.

This week, the three-day conference attracted worldwide attention to the 17 global sustainability goals of the United Nations. Speakers range from the head of the International Red Cross to the director of UNICEF. UVU President Astrid Tuminez said the gathering will include the presentations of 75 scholarly papers, all of which will be digitized and made available to the world.

Why UVU? Tuminez is matter-of-fact about that. It’s the university with the largest enrollment in Utah (43,000), and it accepts all applicants, which goes along with the UN’s goals of equality and acceptance. 

The theme of the conference is “Why it matters.” Tuminez has an answer for that, too. 

“If we don’t communicate, we don’t begin to understand one another and what we can do together to solve problems.”

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Conferences are great for communicating, and for reminding everyone that the world’s problems aren’t confined by boundaries. The war in Ukraine, the world’s environmental problems, the extremes of drought and flooding and the many human rights violations around the globe are everyone’s problems.

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“This conference is about hope, and hope is the opposite of despair,” Tuminez said during the opening session. “We can educate ourselves, understand what’s under our control and make better choices as individuals, as families, as communities and as citizens of the world.”

Refugees personalize the ways many nations of the world defy the UN’s 17 goals, from the ones to eradicate poverty and hunger to the ones of providing gender equality. Young refugees are living exclamation points who demonstrate how those nation’s discard the brightest and most energetic people they have. 

UVU’s recent audacious worldwide conferences may be a secret to many in the Beehive State. But the many refugees among us, newly acquainted with both a state and a nation to which they express profound gratitude, should not be a secret. They are daily reminders that the outside world is not so much on the outside.

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