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The City Journals

One Year On: Refugee Center Fosters Work Opportunities

Oct 07, 2016 02:57PM ● By Travis Barton

Innocent Karangwa stops for a photo at the Utah Refugee Education and Training Center. Karangwa is from Congo and found a good paying job after attending courses at the center. (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

The world holds around 20 million refugees. Utah is home to approximately 65,000 refugees. A center in South Salt Lake continues to help refugees one by one.

Over a year removed from opening, the Utah Refugee Education and Training Center in South Salt Lake fosters opportunities for refugees to find family sustaining employment through its various workshops and classes. 

“A lot of it is listening to what people in the community are saying they want, recognizing where some of the gaps are to support refugees,” Asha Parekh said. Parekh is the director of Refugee Service Office. 

The refugee center grew out of a partnership between the Department of Workforce Services, Utah State University and Salt Lake Community College (SLCC). The center is located on the Meadowbrook Campus of SLCC. 

Since opening in May 2015, the center has seen 4,226 refugees come to participate in the expanded services the center has to offer. Classes on a weekly and monthly basis are offered where refugees can take drivers education courses or workshops to help create job resumes and improve job interview skills. 

“[The center] helped me find a job. Before it was I didn’t know how to find job,” Innocent Karangwa, 28, said. “Now I have a job and help my family.”

Karangwa and his family are refugees of Congo and came to the United States almost three years ago.

Parekh said the average wage a refugee earned last year was around $9. The center’s goal is increase that pay to around $15. She said short-term workshops are one way to close the gap, like the warehouse workshop where participants can learn how to drive a forklift. This helps them find better paying jobs. 

Karangwa is a testament to that process. Karangwa worked in housekeeping and a meat company before entering the warehouse workshop earning forklift certification. He now works for Smithfield using the skills he learned at the center.

“After [receiving] my license for the forklift, I found a job for $15.30,” Karangwa said. 

“That’s great, if we can do that for more people, it will change the whole experience of living here,” Parekh said. 

Parekh said having the necessary funds will improve many aspects of the refugees’ lives.

“It opens up your access to a better place to live, better schools for your kids, it changes your life,” Parekh said. 

Karangwa’s dream job right now is to become a UTA bus driver and drive a semi-truck where he can travel throughout the whole country. 

“I want to [get to] know the country, Texas, Chicago, California and then come back to Utah because I love Utah,” Karangwa said.  

Entering the workforce isn’t easy for refugees. Karangwa said overcoming the language barrier and understanding transportation was difficult when he first started. 

“Sometimes they tell me, ‘hey go do this,’ and I don’t know how they say it,” Karangwa said. “Sometimes I think they thought, ‘I don’t want to.’ I want to, but I [didn’t] understand.” 

Refugees also enter the workforce with rare qualities. 

“These are people who are survivors, who have experienced so many horrific things so their capacity to stay in a workplace and stick with you as an employer is really tremendous,” Parekh said. 

Karangwa said attempting to learn in school was difficult in Congo due to constant hunger.

“Life over [there] is too hard, sometimes you leave school come back [home], nothing. You go back to school hungry, you learn nothing,” Karangwa said. He would end up leaving school to work making the equivalent of $10 per month for his family. 

Karangwa has three teenage sisters and a brother who took the forklift course with him and is enrolling in college. Karangwa also got married on Sept. 3. 

“They need a better life…I think my dream will be better because I don’t want my brother to be nothing,” Karangwa said. “You have to help family and then after that he can help himself.”

That’s how important it is, Karangwa said, to have a job. 

“Where you work, you help country, you help yourself, you help your family,” Karangwa said. 

The best way for the community to help, Parekh said, is by getting to know refugees and understanding their culture in order to help them assimilate to the working culture here. 

“That requires a big commitment of time and energy, and if people are willing to make that commitment, it’s a life changing experience,” Parekh said. “I think the most hardened souls would become softened by talking to a refugee about their specific life experiences.”

Parekh said refugee’s experiences at the center, like Karangwa’s, will only pull in more refugees from around the valley.

“That’s gonna sell our programming way more than any of us can do,” Parekh said. 

And that’s exactly what Karangwa will do for the center.

 “I tell other people, ‘you come here, your life will be better,’” Karangwa said.