Wednesday, December 9, 2015

‘Rewarding’ program matches refugees in Utah with mentors

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aster Paw, 19, top left, and Nay Ree, 21, with their father Pah De Paw, left, and volunteer Alan Gardner who mentors the refugee family who are originally from Myanmar, formerly called Burma. Photo was taken at their home in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, November 24, 2015.

Season of giving » Sandy man helps newcomers adjust to life, connect with the community.

After fleeing his native Myanmar and spending 14 years in a refugee camp in Thailand, Pah De Paw faced even more daunting challenges when he arrived in Utah with his family.

The widower spoke no English and was unfamiliar with American culture. But, thanks to the Refugee Family Friend Program, his adjustment to his new life is a little bit easier.

Paw was paired through the family mentor program with Sandy resident Alan Gardner, who is helping him navigate the system, from applying for state IDs for family members to setting up cable at his Salt Lake City apartment.

In addition, the families are sharing experiences, including attending religious services at Paw's church and camping at Arches National Park.

"They have been very welcoming," Gardner said of Paw and his daughter and three sons. "It's been rewarding to feel that they appreciate me."

The Refugee Family Friend Program — a joint project of Salt Lake City and the state's Refugee Services Office, which is part of the Utah Department of Workforce Services — matches volunteers with refugee families to form friendships and help the newcomers gain access to resources.

Volunteers, who are given training before they begin, are asked to put in two to four hours a week for at least eight months. They must be at least 18, but younger members of volunteers' families often participate in activities.

Activities in the program can range from going to festivals and cooking together to practicing English for a citizenship test and doing after-school tutoring of the kids.

The ultimate goal is to create a strong connection between refugees and the mainstream community, according to Amanda Anderson, Salt Lake City volunteer services coordinator. She said the mentor program, which has set up 24 pairings since it was launched last spring, has been an overwhelming success.

Ler Wah, a community resource specialist for the Refugee Services Office, agrees that the Gardner-Paw pairing has been a success. He said Paw, who spent years going through the application process to come to the United States, is determined to make a successful resettlement.

"Whatever it takes," Wah said, "he'll do it."

Paw, an ethnic Karen who came to the United States in 2013, is still learning English and said his biggest problem has been with the language — an obstacle that Gardner helps him overcome.

When Paw gets a notice in the mail about a matter that needs attention, "he just can't pick up the phone," Gardner said, so he steps in. Gardner handled the cable setup "because I know how to do the phone tree."

Gardner has been meeting with the Paw family once a week since April and plans to stick with the program beyond the one-year commitment he made.

There is an attitude in the United States that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, he said. But Gardner said there is a great need for the program because — borrowing a baseball analogy — most Americans start on third base while refugees are still on home plate.

He added that the language barrier can be frustrating, but he encourages others to become mentors.

"I would say go for it," Gardner said. "It's very rewarding."