When Kamal Bewar arrived in Salt Lake City in the early 1990s, the Kurdish community consisted of himself and six or seven other single men who got off the plane with him. Alone and struggling to learn English, he found it hard to adjust to his new, strange home, where almost everybody was white and thought “Kurd” had something to do with cottage cheese. He estimates that it took two or three years to get adjusted to life in Salt Lake City, but he has toughed it out long enough to see the Kurdish community grow to an estimated 300 people.
“People are great here. That’s one reason I didn’t want to move to another state,” he says. “I still might because of the weather, but not the people.”
Salt Lake City might seem an odd place to resettle war refugees. It’s hardly a cosmopolitan city, especially when compared to traditional resettlement areas like Miami, Los Angeles and New York City. But with its low cost of living, relatively good economy, low crime rates and access to education, Salt Lake City is a popular destination for the world’s war refugees.
Many, if not most, of the refugees who are resettled in Utah have never heard of the Beehive State. Before coming here, they have about as good a chance of picking it out on the map as the average American has of pointing to Sudan, or even Iraq. But not knowing where Utah is doesn’t prevent them from coming here, since they technically don’t have a choice in the matter. Refugees are sent to cities that have local, non-governmental resettlement agencies, and Salt Lake City has three of them: the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Catholic Community Services and Jewish Family Services. Together, the three agencies have resettled about 8,000 refugees in Utah since 1994.
The agencies work with the State Department to find cities where the refugees will feel the most comfortable. Comfort includes job opportunities and cheap rent—the government provides assistance for the first three months, but after that refugees are on their own. Preference is often given to agencies who can settle refugees in cities where ethnic communities exist, but sometimes it’s not feasible and somebody like Kamal gets sent to Utah.
Eventually, enough so-called “free cases” wind up in a specific place and a community is born. Such is the case with the local Bosnian community. In 1994, the IRC’s first year in Salt Lake City, it resettled 165 Bosnians in Utah. Since then, the IRC has greeted 2,259 Bosnians at the airport—many of them sent here because of the ever-growing Bosnian refugee community.
Salt Lake City’s reputation as a family-friendly community is also attractive. Masud Sindy and his family were lucky—they had some say in where they ended up. After the first Gulf War, Masud and his brothers served as armed guards and guides for U.S. personnel who were operating in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. When the American forces pulled out, the U.S. government offered to resettle the Sindys somewhere in America.
“They asked us if we wanted to go to a family city or a big city,” Masud says. “We wanted a family city, where there are no problems, no gangs.”
They were sent to Utah, where they found a community that didn’t think the size of Masud’s 15-member family was overly strange. They also managed to find jobs after their government assistance ran out, and when Masud and his brothers got on the wrong bus after their first day of work and ended up in Magna, a caring stranger drove them to their house on Redwood Road.
While Utah’s economy is mired in a slump and the cost of living is growing disproportionate to salaries, Salt Lake City’s popularity as a resettlement destination will likely increase in the near future. Paul Bratton of the local IRC affiliate says national headquarters have told the Salt Lake City staff that they want the branch to grow. And each month, free cases are starting new communities—Utah’s first Bantu Somali refugees arrive this month, perhaps beginning a small exodus from the Horn of Africa to the Wasatch Front.