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Salt Lake City’s Refugee Program Fills A Friendship Gap


Salt Lake City is home to two resettlement agencies that help refugees acclimate to life in the U.S. But sometimes it takes more than that for refugees to feel welcome in their new communities.

A Salt Lake City program aims to fill that gap by matching volunteers with refugee families who have been in the U.S. for two years or more. While not exactly new to the country, they may need some help—or just a friend.

“One of the greatest needs that was missing is friendship with the mainstream community,” says Fatima Dirie, Salt Lake City’s refugee community liaison.

“We started the program just looking at how we can develop friendship between refugees and the general, mainstream community.”

Dirie runs the volunteer program, which was created in 2015. She says right now 180 volunteers from all over the Wasatch Front are serving about 250 refugee families. The volunteers can help with everything from advanced English and computer skills to finding work or taking a driving test.  

Ryan Gibbons has been a program volunteer for a year and a half. He got his whole family involved and became close friends with a family of refugees from Bhutan. 

“You’re like, ‘these people are amazing,’” he says. “They’re so kind and humble and hardworking and I get to help them out a little bit. So that was pretty special.”

Since President Trump first proposed a refugee travel ban, Dirie says more refugees are looking for friends in their new homes “and not feeling like they need to hide.” 

Meanwhile, she says more volunteers have sought out ways to connect with refugees.

“We want people to know that refugees are making an impact, they’re paying their taxes, they’re working, they’re going to school,” Dirie says.

The city hosts an orientation for interested volunteers once a month. Dirie says they’re always looking for family mentors and people to help with skill development.

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