Sara Paw moved to the United States as a young teen. She and her family, refugees in Utah, fled Thailand because of the violence in Myanmar.
Paw graduated from Cottonwood High School in 2017 and started taking classes at Salt Lake Community College that fall. Still, she said, after more than five years in the United States, she still struggles with the language and navigating college as seamlessly as her native peers.
“Education back in Thailand is near impossible for a person like me,” said Paw. “This [is] one opportunity that I would never waste.”
How SLCC helps refugees
The Utah Refugee Education and Training Center operated out of the SLCC Meadowbrook Campus for almost five years before relocating in November 2020. While the Meadowbrook Campus is no longer involved with refugee services, SLCC still provides refugee technology training at the new center.
According to an opinion piece by SLCC President Deneece Huftalin and Asha Parekh, the director of refugee services at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, the center helped more than 40,000 refugees between 2019 and 2020.
Other resources include the Utah Refugee Coalition, which is made up of volunteers who offer tutoring, run after-school programs, and hold events to introduce the community to new refugees who, in turn, share their stories about moving to Utah. The group also offers resources connecting refugees to programs that help them navigate life in the U.S.
Dr. Kamal Bewar was born in Kurdistan, Iraq, and fled as a refugee to the United States 25 years ago. He experienced numerous obstacles, he said, during his enrollment in post-secondary education, but that did not stop him from becoming a well-respected man in the community.
Bewar earned his doctoral degree in higher education leadership from Argosy University, where his thesis subject focused on support and barriers in higher education among Kurdish immigrant students.
Now, Bewar serves as a student coordinator in the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at SLCC, working primarily with refugee and immigrants students. His role, he noted, is to ensure students have successful educational journeys.
Some of the challenges, he said, include shortcomings of existing language training programs for refugees.
“There are not enough tutors to train students properly in their own native language,” Bewar said. “With enough support, [however], refugee students can overcome this shortcoming.”
Making the most of every opportunity
Karlina Matayo, a 20-year-old social work major at SLCC, moved to the United States more than six years ago from South Sudan. For Matayo, coming to Utah brought with it a big opportunity for her and her family.
Matayo said women are not allowed to go to school where she came from; instead, women stay home while the men work and provide for the family.
“It was a culture shock coming to the U.S.,” she said, explaining the way the people dressed, talked and carried themselves was very different from South Sudan.
Matayo, who said she has received a lot of support from the Black Student Union, is the first female in her family to attend college.
“This is an opportunity that I will never take for granted,” she said.