Refugee Blues: Students Sign Up as SLCPD Cadets

Isha Shire wants to be a cop. “Yeah, you risk your life and everything,” says the 19-year-old Somalian Bantu refugee, “but you help so much.”When Shire told her parents she had joined the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Explorers—a program for teenagers interested in law enforcement as a career—they were upset. Refugees are often afraid of cops, having fled traumatic violence by uniformed men in their home countries. Most in their social circle said she shouldn’t do it. “The community really didn’t like it at first,” says her mother Deynaba Alagaba, for whom Shire translated. “They said she was going to die, that she was too small to be a cop.”

It also didn’t go down well with some of her contemporaries. The first time she posted online pictures of herself in uniform, some, among them relatives, asked her, “‘You would kill your own people?’”

One youth who claimed to be a 20-year-old refugee who had done jail time, shared his disgust with her on Snapchat. “But ur a pig bruh like how do u expect people to feel about u fukin up peoples live n shi. [sic]”

She remains undeterred. “At the end of the day, you do you,” she says. “You go for what you really want.”

Shire is one of only two refugee youth enrolled among the 51 cadets, who meet every Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. at Salt Lake’s Public Safety building for a mix of exercise, drills and lessons in the various disciplines that make up law enforcement. Why they are so badly needed is apparent in refugees’ stories, including that of Shire’s own parents.

Deynaba Alagaba and Hussein Osman met in a Kenyan refugee camp in the early 1990s. Both walked for days to get there from Somalia to escape a country sinking into violence and conflict. In the process, they buried loved ones who didn’t survive the journey. A decade later, a refugee group brought the then seven-member family to Utah, after a bewildering night in a two-bed New York hotel room when they all slept on the floor.

“They would always hear America is the land of freedom,” Shire translates as her parents speak in the West Valley City house the family of 10 has called home for 12 years. “They wanted their kids to be educated, they wanted us to get better jobs than they had.”

When they saw the police, with their guns and batons, “They were really scared,” Shire says. In Somalia and Kenya the police had often been corrupt. “If someone has power, they have the right to take away your rights,” Alagaba says.

There are 65,000 refugees in Utah, most concentrated in the Salt Lake valley, including South Salt Lake, West Valley, Taylorsville and Midvale. For cops, the challenge of policing refugees is negotiating language and cultural differences. Local police departments put together presentations for newly arrived refugees about the actions that can surge a cop’s adrenaline, or, as SLCPD refugee liaison Det. Rob Ungricht calls it The Basics. “Like if you get pulled over, show us your hands, don’t be putting them in your pockets.”

One refugee who saw a cop’s flashing lights behind him, stepped on the gas, recalls Asha Parek, the head of Utah’s Refugee Services. In his country, flashing light meant speed to get out of the way of a motorcade. In Utah that got him arrested after a high-speed chase.

At the same time, cops need to understand that a refugee’s behavior is rooted in cultural customs.

In Somalia, you look at the ground out of respect when talking to the authorities. Cops in Utah think you’re lying.

Somalians talk with their hands. That tells an agitated officer you might be violent.

Several social workers, speaking anonymously because they didn’t have permission from their supervisors to talk to media, painted a more troubling picture. They estimated that 80 percent of recently arrived refugee youth end up in the justice system, and social isolation is the root cause. Speaking little English, refugees are easy prey for gang recruitment. They are often set up to take the fall for crimes planned by other gang members. They’re told to go to a store to steal, or get sent into a house to burglarize while the gang is on “look-out,” but the others disappear when the refugee child triggers an alarm. With threats of violence if they inform, the resulting criminal record can prove a barrier to employment and a green card.Parek says refugee interactions with the criminal justice system is a tiny part of all the good stories that can be found at the Refugee Service Center. While she notes an anecdotal uptick in recent years in complaints from Utah refugees about abuse and harassment, she laments the lack of statistics.

“Nobody tracks these incidences based on refugee status,” she says.

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Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark
Stephen Dark is a freelance journalist who's worked in London, Buenos Aires and now Salt Lake City.

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