WHERE GOD LIVES
Joseph and Saran Nahas, photo by Adam Finkle.
Try to imagine what it must have been like for the man from Sierra Leone, Africa, when he saw Salt Lake City at the foot of the snowy Continental Divide for the first time in December 2005.
"I said, 'This is where God lives,'" recalls Joseph Nahas, unaware of devilish Utah winters. He laughs now about his first winter here, when he ignored his wife Saran's urging to put on warm clothing and had to get off a bus and take shelter in a convenience store until his teeth stopped chattering.
Nahas is not technically a refugee, but his wife Saran is. Joseph and Saran fled their Freetown home with their children during the horrific civil war in Sierra Leone to live in a refugee camp in Ghana. But there was no way for Joseph to earn money to buy food and provisions for his family.
So he went to Ivory Coast to find work, but that nation, too, had plunged into civil war.
In autumn 2004, while Nahas was still away, officials in Ghana sent Saran and the children to live in Salt Lake City. She left a hand-written note for her husband, telling him where they had gone. It may seem improbable, but the note was waiting for him when he returned to the camp. And it confused him. "I said, 'Salt Lake City, is that in America?' They said, 'It is in Utah.' I said, 'Is that in America?'"
The Nahas family was apart for two years and unable to keep in touch, Joseph says. But Saran found an accidental guardian angel in Amy Wylie, who befriended Saran one day just by saying hello and asking if she needed help.
Wylie and her husband were service missionaries with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, assigned to South Salt Lake, where Saran Nahas was living in the South Pare apartment complex, one of several refugee landing spots in Salt Lake County. Wylie was determined to reunite the couple sooner than would be possible if Joseph stayed among the tens of thousands of refugees in Ghana hoping for officials to send him to Utah, too.
She cast a wide net for a solution. Eventually an email arrived from a benefactor, who prefers to remain anonymous, promising to donate frequent-flyer miles to pay Joseph's way to Salt Lake City. Once here on a visitor's visa, Joseph successfully applied for asylum. He couldn't have done it without Wylie, he says.
For most refugees, Wylie says, "the most important thing is to have American friends."
The Nahas fled Sierra Leone's Freetown during the civil war.
The Nahases both were professionals in Sierra Leone, he an economist and teacher, she an accountant. And, because English is the official language of Sierra Leone, they had a bit of a head start with their new American lives. But it wasn't easy. "When you come here, you think English will be the only problem,'' he says. It is not.
In his job with the state Refugee Services Office, Nahas manages grants and teaches various refugee communities self-reliance in a new land and introduces them to American laws and customs. He often finds himself mediating disagreements between people from the same country but members of different tribes, whose grudges can reach the distant edges of memory. Sometimes he can find common ground, other times he's told to back off. Lately he's been trying to keep the peace among different tribes from Myanmar through men's soccer. "I am trying to make a team of the best players," he says, "and call it Myanmar United."
Agencies of Change
Over 46,000 refugees have resettled in Utah since 1988, 70 percent of which are women and children. Utah continues to welcome 1,100 new refugees each year. All refugees in Utah are resettled by the International Rescue Committee or Catholic Community Services, agencies which provide core services like housing, medical coordination, school and English language class enrollment.
The Refugee and Immigrant Center at the Asian Association of Utah also provides some of these services. The Utah Refugee Coalition and refugee community organizations provide ongoing community connection and help. You can help, too.