Utah refugee numbers rise after pandemic, Biden administration targets

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Iryna Voytyuk’s mother worked all her life in Ukraine and was never able to buy Iryna a bike.

Life in Ukraine is expensive, Voytyuk said. She shared how people were slowly saving for a sofa and had to prioritize updates at home over travel.

But the arrival in America has given the voytyuks and some of their loved ones more opportunities.

Since Voytyuk came to the United States as a political asylum seeker with her husband and three children from western Ukraine nine years ago, she has been able to give her sons and daughter – and now her parents – the best she can.

After bringing her parents to Utah to escape the war in Ukraine last year, her mother saw the sea for the first time at the age of 67 during a family vacation in Florida.

The Voytyuks are among millions of people worldwide displaced due to human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, war, regime change and many other forms of persecution, conflict and violence.

Thousands of refugees and asylum seekers have found a new home in Utah. While the number of new arrivals has declined, it has begun to return to normal, giving more refugees a chance to be accepted as new residents of the Beehive State.

“When I walk around and look at the communities, I see refugees who are integrated into the communities, working in different capacities and doing small business work for the restaurant and other services,” Cherif Diallo, director of the International Rescue Committee, said of them two organizations that help resettle refugees in Utah.

Mario Kljajo, director of Utah’s Refugee Services Office, agreed that the state is welcoming to people and encouraged people to continue to do so by getting to know their new neighbors.

There are also many opportunities to volunteer, Kljajo and others said.

Who is considered a refugee?

According to US law, a refugee is any person who is outside the country of his or her nationality or residence and who is “unable or unwilling to return to that country and not in is able or unwilling to seek the protection of that country because…” Persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, national origin, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Individuals who meet this definition may be considered for refugee status if they are outside the United States, or for asylum status if they are already in the country.

Resettlement is the last option for people seeking refuge from their homeland, said Aden Batar, who directs migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services, Utah’s other resettlement support center.

According to a report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, less than 1% of the millions of refugees are submitted for resettlement under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UN refugee agency recommends selected countries for the resettlement of these refugees, including the USA

The US then goes through a rigorous screening process to decide whether to accept a refugee. The process can take months to years and includes eight federal agency reviews, six security clearances, medical exams and face-to-face interviews with US Department of Homeland Security officials.

Refugees who survive the process are given a chance to work, live in a peaceful place and ensure their children get an education, Batar said.

Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee greet refugees as they arrive in Utah with social workers and volunteers.

People who relocate here receive information, programs and support services – including housing assistance, employment opportunities, access to health care and language support – to ensure they have a chance to thrive. Benefits can last up to two years or more in some cases.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ali Larson volunteers on Tuesday, August 15, 2023 at the Sharehouse operated by Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City, furnishing homes for people who are settling in Utah.

“We’re giving them the opportunity to rebuild their lives and have a home,” he said. “Many of them have not had a home for a long time and cannot return to their home countries.”

The number of refugees has fallen but is rising

According to Gardner, the US Refugee Admissions Program has resettled around 3.1 million refugees since 1975 and more than 500,000 refugees between 2012 and 2022.

There was a drop in registrations nationwide and in Utah. However, the exact number depends on who you ask. Reported arrival numbers for 2022 range from 450 to 1,816.

Gardner reached out to the Refugee Processing Center, which reported that arrival numbers in Utah fell about 40% between 2016 and 2017, all but dropped further from 2019 to 2022, and have yet to get back to typical numbers as of 2022.

The drop is partly explained by the Trump administration cutting visitor numbers across the country to a record low of 15,000, and the pandemic also impacted arrivals as the US and other countries take measures to slow the spread of the virus caught coronavirus.

Utah’s Refugee Services Office, part of the Department of Workforce Services, reported a 35.8% drop in arrival numbers in 2017 and mostly steady declines since — including with the exception of 2019.

However, the state department reported a more than 500% increase in arrivals between 2021 and 2022, putting the numbers above 2016 levels.

The Utah Department of Health reported an earlier return of more than 1,000 people.

Despite fluctuating numbers, Utah has taken in an average of 1.5% of the refugees admitted to the United States, Gardner’s report said. Based on the goal of 125,000 admissions signed by President Joe Biden, that could mean roughly 1,800 more refugees will be relocated to Utah between last October and the end of September.

Utah has taken in refugees from around the world, although state figures show that the majority — about 38% — are from Africa, including Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Thousands also came from East Asia and the Pacific, South and Central Asia, and the Middle East — countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Guatemala.

Batar said Utah is very hospitable to people from these different regions and refugees are often overwhelmed by the great community support they receive.

Voytyuk recalls the Utahns helping the family as soon as they arrived. They stayed with her sister, who had attended and married Brigham Young University, and then stayed in the United States

When they arrived from Ukraine, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped with groceries for months but could not work yet, Voytyuk said.

They also had Iryna’s daughter, Liya Voytyuk, who starts high school this year, said it was the “best Christmas ever” as the family received gifts through a Giving Tree program after arriving in the US

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Iryna Voytyuk speaks about life in Ukraine on Tuesday, August 1, 2023.

“Everything we got, we owe to the people,” said Iryna Voytyuk.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t growing pains and awkward moments.

There are moments of miscommunication, Iryna Voytyuk said, especially when the same words are used differently due to cultural differences.

And sometimes there’s a language barrier too – Liya and her siblings sometimes just order at the drive-thru for Iryna.

Liya Voytyuk also recalled that children used to tease her in elementary school because she couldn’t pronounce the word “color”. More recently, she said, some of her classmates also joked about bombs because of the war in Ukraine.

The family also recently faced obstacles trying to get documents for Liya to travel with the SheBelongs football team, a mix of refugee and non-refugee players who play with the aim of connecting refugees with others in the to connect states.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liya Voytyuk, on Tuesday, August 1, 2023.

Liya Voytyuk was unable to travel internationally with the team because the US Citizenship and Immigration Services denied a travel application for her.

Federal authorities would not tell the family why, Iryna Voytyuk said. It was the first time they felt unwelcome, she said.

Overall, however, the Voytyuks love the United States and the opportunities the country offers them to grow and thrive.

‘Be a friend’

It’s not just about what they get, either. Iryna Voytyuk also likes to give something back because the family can afford it and knows how good it feels. She works as an information technology program manager at Vivint and her husband is an electrician – a skill he has learned since arriving in the US

She sent care packages to her parents in Ukraine before bringing them here, and because she benefited from the kindness of others, she now helps pay by participating in holiday tree programs for families in need.

Utah is generally better suited to receiving refugees, Batar said.

Refugees are taking on “many of the tough jobs that no one wants to fill,” he said, such as in construction, manufacturing and retail.

Their arrival also offers community members an opportunity to volunteer, he said.

Catholic Community Services offers many ways for people to help, from providing housing or jobs to caring for minors who come to the United States without a caregiver, Batar said.

Klyajo from the refugee office recommended reaching out to CCS and other nonprofits directly to find out how they can help, especially outside of the Wasatch frontline where services aren’t as accessible. People could also go to the state to get in touch with agencies, he said.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Andy Marston works at the Catholic Community Services Sharehouse in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, August 15, 2023. Resettlement agencies offer many opportunities for volunteers to help refugees in their new homes.

There are also ways to get involved without volunteering, Kljajo said, by meeting refugees through opportunities like Utah Refugee Connection or by reaching out to them individually.

Utah has more than 65,000 refugees, he said, and each of them has their own story and reason for coming here. It’s important to have personal experiences and get to know them as individuals, he said.

“Be a friend,” Klyajo said. “I think we sometimes overlook how important that is.”

Megan Banta is the data reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. a philanthropic position. The Tribune retains control of all editorial decisions.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

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