Earlier this month, LDS Daily got to visit the Refugee Action Network to help #LIGHTtheWORLD by serving refugees at a special Christmas concert. While we were there, we got to learn a lot about the good they do in their community. Below is a special write-up about RAN and how you can be inspired to help.
OREM,UT— Many people living in Utah County want to help refugees who have resettled in Utah, but oddly in the wake of the largest refugee crisis in world history it is difficult to find a refugee south of the point of the mountain. That is mainly because most resettle in the Salt Lake area, but advocates say there is still a lot people can do to help create a network for refugees.
“We want the community to become refugee enriched,” Cassie Eggertsen, Executive Director of Refugee Action Network said. “Through Refugee Action Network, not only do we strive to improve the lives of refugees, but we want the community to have opportunities to mentor and learn from the refugees.”
The Refugee Action Network is a Provo-based nonprofit organization that is working to establish a network of five families for each refugee family within the Utah Valley. These families help supply the support and integration necessary for refugees to adapt to their new lifestyle. The hope is that once the organization establishes a large enough network, more refugee families will be able to resettle in Utah Valley. There are currently 60 thousand refugees living in the state of Utah with an additional 1,200 arriving each year. It is estimated that 60 million people became refugees in 2015, alone (UNHCR).
The Refugee Action Network also acts as a central hub for refugees to obtain job training, ESL assistance, and public health instruction.
“If I could come again [as a refugee], I would want the kind of things that Refugee Action Network is doing now,” refugee James Ayuen said. “Refugee Action Network makes things better [for refugees]. They figure out how to help them; to move them to the network.”
James Ayuen was born in a small village in Bor, Sudan (now South Sudan). When Ayuen was about six years old, his village was attacked as part of a campaign by pro-government forces to eradicate the South Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA). Ayuen became one of more than 27,000 survivors, most of them orphans between the ages of 5-14, who were forced to walk more than a thousand miles to flee the country. The plight of “the Lost Boys of the Sudan” became the “Syrian Refugee Crisis” of the 1990s.
“Seeing the Syrian Refugee Crisis is Heart-breaking,” Ayuen said. “It reminds you how bad the world is. These are human beings creating disasters; not God. Human beings. It’s sad…..Whether it’s a refugee from Syria or whether it’s a refugee from the Middle East or Asia, I feel the same way because that’s the situation that I was in.”
Like the Syrian refugees, Ayuen’s journey took him through multiple countries before he finally found refuge in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, where he would spend the next nine years of his life.
In 2000, Ayuen was finally able to start a new life in the United States, a life that was far less glamorous than he had supposed. Life in America brought with it the challenges of learning a new language and finding a decent job. But perhaps the greatest challenge Ayuen says he had to face was the lack of a support network.
“When I came here…..I [was] 18-years-old. Those who were 18-years-old, the government provided us a home for three months and food for three months and at the end of the three months, you were on your own,” Ayuen explained. “You come to a new place, you don’t know the language, and now after three months you’re on your own with no support…it was a tough life.”
Ayuen has come a long way in 16 years. He is now a financial analyst at the Global Services Center in Salt Lake and is currently working on his Master’s Degree at BYU. He’s also a vocal advocate for the Refugee Action Network.
Several weeks ago, Ayuen was the concluding speaker at “Responding in Utah to the Global Refugee Crisis”; a symposium hosted by UVU to allow Utah Valley community members to learn about how they can help refugees. The symposium was well attended by college students and seasoned Utah Valley community members. The event also featured speakers from a wide range of backgrounds; from professional refugee aid organizations to do-it-yourself activists and grass-roots non-profit organizations.
“I don’t think [any other refugee aid program] has the same strategy that Refugee Action has” Ayuen said after the conference. “Where they can support you….so you can figure things out, go to school, get an American life,…get used to the culture,….and build a strong foundation so you can survive.”
“Through Refugee Action Network, community members will learn about the refugees’ lives,” Eggertsen added. “They will be inspired by their resiliency to trauma and opposition, they will find courage in their own lives and in the back of their minds they will think “if these people can go through so much, and succeed with so little; truly anything is possible.”