SALT LAKE CITY — Some of Salt Lake County’s newest residents are small business owners, school employees and junior high students.
And they’re 12,000 miles from home.
Fleeing violence that the United Nations has dubbed ethnic cleansing, roughly 200 refugees and unaccompanied minors from the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar have moved to Salt Lake County.
The newcomers got a warm reception at the Granite School District offices in Salt Lake City on Wednesday during an information session aimed to help Utahns learn more about their Rohingya neighbors. Roughly 200 attended.
Umar Mohamad Arif, who landed in Salt Lake City in 2013, said the persecution he faced took other forms besides violence. He walked for 70 days to cross mountains into Malaysia as a teenager because he and other Rohingya people in Myanmar were not permitted to gain citizenship or attend college, he said.
“I am one of the lucky ones,” Mohamad Arif, now an interpreter in Granite schools, told attendees.
An event organizer encouraged those who listened to Arif and other speakers to stand up and show their support. Most everyone rose from their seats, applauding the newcomers.
They are among the 700,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled a violent campaign by Myanmar’s army over the last seven months. The military there has reacted to insurgent attacks on police with the burning of Rohingya villages, systematic rape, shootings and other violence.
“They’ve left loved ones. They’ve left family members,” said Fatima Dirie, refugee community liaison in the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office. “We think it’s important to recognize, educate and raise awareness about their new neighbors and the unique contributions they’re making.”
“I couldn’t have had any education. Police don’t allow us to go to public schools or anything,” she said.
In February, the Associated Press reported that there are at least five mass graves of Rohingya civilians in Myanmar. The nation’s military denies it has targeted Rohingya civilians and has said terrorists were the only ones killed. Myanmar’s government maintains Rohingya is not a valid ethnicity and that the group illegally migrated from Bangladesh.
Kim Twitchell, of Bountiful, brought a youth group from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the Wednesday event, along with other adult leaders.
“It’s eye-opening,” she said of the meeting, adding that it highlighted “the importance of our interactions with them, the reality of their struggles and the need for us to get involved.”
Several others who attended brought diapers, toilet paper and gas and grocery cards in order to help the refugees find their footing in the Beehive State.
More events with the group in mind are scheduled.
On April 10, the city will host a session for residents to write postcards to Utah’s congressional delegation, urging them to support federal legislation recognizing the violence as genocide. The event is schedule for 6-8:30 p.m. on the fourth floor of the downtown Salt Lake City Public Library.
Those who would like to donate or volunteer with refugee organizations to help their new neighbors can learn more online at www.slcgov.com/volunteer/refugee-volunteer-programs.