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Sugar House Journal

International Rescue Committee celebrates 25th Journey to the Wasatch

May 20, 2019 13h39 ● By Jennifer J Johnson

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson credits the county becoming a certified Welcoming County as one of the major accomplishments the past year. Wilson was the keynote for 25th annual Journey to the Wasatch fundraiser. (Photo Credit IRC)

By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

A silver anniversary for a Salt Lake humanitarian relief organization has more than a silver lining for Utah’s refugees.

The Journey to the Wasatch is how the International Rescue Committee (IRC) describes its annual fundraising event.

The event’s name pays honor to the literal journey of more than 11,000 refugees from war-torn and other countries who have journeyed to the Wasatch area. The Wasatch Mountains are a key part of the journey, both on the front end, where refugees see images or even videos of the area’s iconic mountains, and their actual arrival, where refugees then see the nearly 12,000-foot mountains in front of them.

This year’s Journey celebration, commemorating the Salt Lake Chapter’s 25
th anniversary, was held March 28 at the Falls Event Center. The IRC Salt Lake City hosted 150-plus philanthropists and refugee-rights advocates and the evening program raised approximately $25,000 for the organization.

The celebration also offered the opportunity to learn about the organization’s annual accomplishments and to be treated to cuisine from around the world prepared and served by many refugees who have endured their own journey to the Wasatch. The night was a proud one for bona fide businesspeople growing out of IRC’s Spice Kitchen business incubator, fed by the New Roots farming program.

Inside the IRC

Charged with resettling refugees, IRC is a non-governmental organization which serves as “the first faces refugees see when they arrive in Salt Lake City,” explained Salt Lake City IRC Chapter Executive Director Natalie El-Deiry. The United States Secretary of State has officially authorized IRC and the local Catholic Community Services as the two agencies to arrange for refugees’ journeys to Utah.

The refugee journey to Utah, El-Deiry said, is “a complex and arduous one” and IRC Salt Lake City is honored to help incoming refugees access housing, education, employment and healthcare needs.

IRC Utah comprises 65 employees and what El-Deiry depicted as “an army of volunteers” staffing 20 different programs.

In serving more than 11,000 refugees the past 25 years, El-Deiry notes that the local office has developed programming that exceeds the offerings from many to most other IRC locations. These services include those from the Spice Kitchen Business Incubator, services such as helping refugees start their own businesses, pursue advanced education, and even own their own homes.

“IRC gives the local government a roadmap as to global refugee-management policy,” said IRC supporter and local activist participating on the Utah Muslim Civic League and Utah Council for Citizen Diplomacy Luna Banuri. “IRC has raised the standard for refugees.”

Utah a sweet spot for caring for refugees

Utah’s unique, powerful bipartisan culture and the courage Utahns have to cross party lines to do the right thing in aiding refugees allows for this rich level of service to refugees journeying to the state.

“When other states were questioning whether to accept refugees into their communities, Governor Herbert stood up and expressed the importance of continuing to accept refugees into our community and (underscored) the value they add,” El-Deiry said.

“Being in our community, it gives me a lot of strength that our governor went against the grain,” observed Banuri, adding, “It was very brave of him.”

Commitments from former governor Jon Huntsman and Utah Division of Workforce Services executive Jon Pierpont initially expanded IRC’s refugee service offering to 24 months of services. This decision placed Utah’s refugee welcoming in best-of-class status.

“Most refugees [settling in other communities] receive three to six months of services, (from) IRC or other resettlement agencies,” El-Deiry said. “Salt Lake City has so many innovative programming that has helped support refugees in so many ways. That has put us on the map in a different way.”

The spice of life—and of business

A difficult aspect of serving the refugee community is greeting then servicing highly skilled professionals, women and men who were doctors or lawyers in their home county, but who have, especially in war-torn countries, lost documentation of their credentials. “In all honesty, (journeying to Utah) is very difficult,” El-Deiry said. “They take the first job they can get.”

To provide refugees with the richest opportunities possible, the local IRC studied a program a San Francisco chapter. 

Six years ago, the local Spice Kitchen Incubator was born. Spice Kitchen currently comprises more than 50 refugees who own 38 different businesses, representing food from 25 countries and five continents. For the Journey to the Wasatch 2019 celebration, IRC Salt Lake City hired three of the vendors.

“What we find with Spice Kitchen,” El-Deiry said, “is a lot of people have food backgrounds and wanted to transfer those skills to the United States.”

“At the events, we always make it a point to showcase the entrepreneurs. That is always the highlight.”

IRC key to SLCO’s Welcoming Community status

This past year, Salt Lake County has been recognized as a Certified Welcoming Community. IRC is crucial to that credential. The certification is a unique distinction and one helping the region distinguish itself as a strong business community with a diverse workforce.

“IRC is a key partner in the Welcoming movement,” said Ze Min Xiao, director of the Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office for New Americans. “For over a decade, Salt Lake County has the privilege of supporting the IRC’s economic empowerment programs. New Roots and the Spice Kitchen Incubator are prime examples of programs that are contributing to the building of integrated communities.”

Salt Lake City IRC received sponsorship for its 25
th annual Journey event from eBay as its Humanitarian Sponsor. Other major sponsors included Young Living Foundation, Oportun, Susan Poulin of Sotheby's Summit Realty, and both Utah's Own and LDS Charities.

County Mayor Jenny Wilson provided introductory remarks for the evening. 

In attendance were numerous prominent Utahns, including Salt Lake City mayoral candidate and community leader Christian Harrison. “He has always been a supporter of our work, and has helped raise the profile for the program,” El-Deiry said.