Totes Ma Goats 

The East African Refugee Goat Project has many facets

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If you zig-zag north and west of the airport, beyond asphalt and flat-roofed buildings, a gravel road leads to a corral full of goats—132, to be exact—surrounded by 2,200 acres of flat, tawny grassland. In the distance, you can see the dark mountains of Antelope Island and the pallid berm of Kennecott tailings rising along Interstate 80. Not far away is the prison-relocation site that is opposed by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker along with more than half of the city's residents.

"Welcome to the East African Refugee Goat Project of Utah," says Joshua Lloyd, as I walk into the corral. Lloyd is the Economic Empowerment Program Manager in the Utah office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). My entrance draws a crowd of curious, white-and-brown kids the size of cocker spaniels. They greet me enthusiastically and take turns chewing on my pant leg and tugging at my shoelaces. Lloyd introduces Gustave Deogratiasi—a Burundian refugee whom IRC brought to Utah in 2007—and Hussein Aden, a Somali Bantu who arrived in 2004. Deogratiasi runs the goat project. He tells me 67 goats were born this spring. I write it down. I also note—his shoes don't have laces.

It doesn't take long to realize the goat project has many facets. Each is worthy of a few hundred words by a scribbler like me. The challenge is to write the right story, a process similar to navigating a maze. At its center, you find the essential story.

This one could be about the IRC. Founded in 1933 at the urging of Albert Einstein, the humanitarian agency works in 40 countries helping those escaping war or persecution with no place to go. The United Nations reported more than 50 million people were refugees last year. Salt Lake City is one of IRC's 22 regional offices in the United States through which refugees are introduced to a new, safe life. In the past two years, 2,274 refugees have been resettled in Utah from such troubled countries as Iraq, Bhutan, Syria and Somalia. It is an engaging story.

But the best stories are usually about people, and I have a hunch about Lloyd. A lanky, James Taylor lookalike, he was in on early discussions of a goat farm in 2013. I imagine him thinking it was a good idea, but since he lacked land and animal-husbandry experience, raising a herd of 500 goats was in the too-tough-to-do category. However, as obstacles were overcome, one by one, he soon found himself "drinking from a fire hose." He recalled the arrival of the first goats as a sobering "what now?" moment. Since then, Lloyd, a 2000 graduate of Brigham Young University, has become what I would call an affectionate project manager. This spring, with nannies kidding around the clock, he has served as midwife more than once. Now, with this year's kid cohort pulling at our shoelaces, he acknowledges that he is working himself out of a job. Once the goat project matures into a nonprofit company run by people like Aden and Deogratiasi, Lloyd will be left behind with the happy-sad ambivalence of an empty nester.

That Lloyd's pet project is a "microenterprise" is another story. The label is typically applied to low-capital businesses launched by immigrants. For the IRC's goat microenterprise to be viable, two streams of income must be developed—rent and meat (their Boer goats are not a dairy breed). The market is promising on both accounts. Goats are in demand for brush clearing and weed control. Potential local clients include Rio Tinto, Rocky Mountain Power and the airport. The voracious herbivores can lay waste to woody plants, poison ivy and kudzu. (If you have qualms about dousing a patch of poison oak with herbicide, you can now rent a goat on Amazon.com in some places.)

Goat meat is also in demand. It's a mainstay of many African, Caribbean and Asian cuisines. A wedding or Eid-al-Fitr celebration without goat is like Thanksgiving without turkey. As I talk with Deogratiasi and Aden, I sense mouth-watering anticipation as the conversation turns to the future of the baby goats chewing on our shoelaces. It's not just immigrants who long for the lean, hard-to-find meat; New York Magazine identified goat meat as a "trendlet" in 2008. I wonder when goat-loin chops will show up on Pago's menu.

In this age of bitter political division, the goat project is a good-news story with bipartisan appeal. For bleeding-heart Democrats, the project is proof positive that government has a legitimate role to play in the business sphere and plays it pretty well. For flinty Republicans, the project exemplifies the American entrepreneurial spirit and the free market at work. Both are simplistic. In fact, the goat project is an extended, public-private collaboration. The IRC's herd lives on Rio Tinto land under the watchful eye of three immigrant communities—Somali Bantu, Burundi, and Somali Bajuni. The goats eat hay provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The state Refugee Services Office provides support, as do Levan Ridge Farm and Utah State University.

Aden and Deogratiasi say the project has value as a cultural touchstone for the 200-plus East African families living in Salt Lake City. Watching the goats browsing in the distance, Aden says wistfully, "I feel like I am back in Africa."

Whatever the right storyline is, the enterprise needs a punchier name. EARGPU won't work as an acronym, so for a rebranding alternative, I look to Google translator for "success" in Swahili. I can envisage a day when Utah is recognized for its Morgan Valley lamb, Sanpete County turkey, Antelope Island bison and Mafanikio goat.

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