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This Utah Nonprofit Helped 100 Refugees Get Diplomas. Next: Jobs

As Donald Trump curbs the entry of displaced persons into the U.S., One Refugee—in a deep-red state—is helping them find opportunity in college and beyond.

This Utah Nonprofit Helped 100 Refugees Get Diplomas. Next: Jobs
Virginia Hitimana is working on her bachelor’s degree at Utah Valley University, with help from One Refugee. [Photo: Marissa Crookston, courtesy of One Refugee]

Emma Shekina was convinced that American opportunity was passing her by. It was September 2014, and Shekina, then 21, had recently relocated to Salt Lake City from a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. While her 16-year-old brother bounced around the foster-care system, Shekina worked full-time at McDonald’s and a downtown restaurant, stacking shifts back-to-back. Then, from 3 p.m. on Saturday through Sunday evening, she’d study for her GED, apply to colleges, and try to chart a life course. An adviser at a community college eventually referred her to a program called One Refugee, where she met Amy Wylie, the nonprofit’s coexecutive director.

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“When I walked into her office, I was crying,” says Shekina, who was born Matania Kapaya but prefers to go by the name she adopted in a refugee camp. “I explained to her . . . I have no family, I don’t know anybody here.”

Emma Shekina, who hopes to earn a degree in business from the University of Utah. [Photo courtesy of One Refugee]
“She acted like she didn’t believe there were people who really would help her,” Wylie remembers. “When she did accept that, yes, Emma, we really are here to help you, there was a sigh of relief. Like, ‘Wow, I’m going to be able to accomplish my goals.'”

That’s precisely the outcome One Refugee strives for. Founded in 2013 as the Refugee Education Initiative by Roger and Sara Boyer, Salt Lake City philanthropists who made a fortune in real estate, the nonprofit helps Utah students from refugee backgrounds finish college. “Nobody had ever heard of them,” Wylie says. “And nobody was giving them assistance.” There are approximately 60,000 refugees in the state, and to date, One Refugee has helped more than 300 students pursue a degree from a local college. One hundred have graduated.

For some, assistance is minimal—maybe a couple thousand dollars for tuition that federal grants don’t cover. Others receive tens of thousands of dollars in books, computers, rent assistance, mental and physical health care, immigration counsel, tuition, and untold hours of informal advice from staff. Shekina has benefited from this type of wraparound approach. Since 2015, the organization has covered her books and all tuition that’s left over after Pell grants. One Refugee also signed her up for health insurance, arranged her housing, found her a therapist, and sent her to a dentist for the first time in her life. “They are not typical college students, and they are not free from concern,” Wylie says. “We cover anything that can be tied to their education.”

Roger Boyer [Photo: courtesy of One Refugee]
Now One Refugee is extending its reach beyond the college degree via a new program focused on career development. Even with a diploma, refugees struggle more than typical immigrants to find a job, let alone meaningful jobs in their field of expertise. “They’re going to get jobs—they’re highly motivated,” says Raymon Burton, the group’s other director. “But many are underemployed. There’s got to be something we can do on the back end.” So in March, One Refugee partnered with O.C. Tanner, a 90-year-old Salt Lake City company with a long tradition of hiring refugees, to start a career-advancement arm. The One Refugee Careers Initiative is led by Selma Mlikota, a 19-year veteran of O.C. Tanner who had to start a new life in America after fleeing war in her native Bosnia. She built a career from virtually nothing and wants to help One Refugee students do the same.

“I was lucky to find a job at O.C. Tanner,” Mlikota says. “I would have taken any job. If I had worked at a meatpacking plant, I would probably be there still.”

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In 2016, 1,319 refugees entered Utah, the majority coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Iraq, and Myanmar. At a time when President Donald Trump and the majority of governors are acting to curb refugee resettlement in the U.S., Utah has remained steadfast in its support for those fleeing the ravages of war. Utah Governor Gary Herbert criticized Trump’s call for a Muslim registry and said Utah would continue to support refugees from any nation. Following Trump’s election, 50 local attorneys committed to pro bono protection of Muslim refugees.

Students at the 2017 Refugee Education Initiative (now One Refugee) celebration and dinner. [Photo: Marissa Crookston, courtesy of One Refugee]
That’s not to say Utah is immune to animosity toward refugees; those 50 attorneys banded together following a spate of reported anti-refugee harassment. But the state’s history as a Mormon enclave has made it more open to the internationally persecuted than most. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is certainly not the state’s only organization focused on assisting displaced people—Catholic Community Services handles the majority of resettlement work in Utah, and there are numerous community centers in the greater Salt Lake City area devoted to the cause—the Mormon community has been a prominent financial and political voice in support of refugee assistance in the modern era. Every refugee who spoke for this story independently brought up the positive role the church played in their resettlement. One Refugee’s founders, the Boyers, are devout Mormons.

The Trump travel ban hasn’t directly affected One Refugee’s work, since few of its students are new arrivals and its private funding isn’t dependent on the government. The Boyers provide more than 90% of the nonprofit’s expenditures, which totaled $710,000 in 2016, nearly $550,000 of which went to students. 

One Refugee beneficiaries come from more than 20 nations, including Myanmar, Afghanistan, Somalia, and South Sudan. Their average age is 27, and once admitted to the program, they must maintain a 2.5 GPA or their status is put on hold (25 students are currently on hold). Many of them have children or brothers and sisters to care for. Shekina, for instance, had been looking after her brother long before arriving in the U.S. The siblings and their mother fled Congo in 2005 for Zimbabwe, where their mother often left the kids alone, sometimes for weeks at a time, to search for work. One absence stretched to two-and-a-half months, after which Shekina learned her mother had died, reportedly of an illness. To this day, she doesn’t know the exact cause of death.

[Photo: Marissa Crookston, courtesy of One Refugee]
Shekina tells her story with a sort of practical detachment. “Even today, I do not tell you all of it, because it breaks me down,” she says. But her demeanor shifts when she speaks of One Refugee. “When I left Wylie’s office,” she says, sitting in student workspace at Salt Lake Community College, “I felt like I had found a mother, and I felt like I had found hope.” The very mention of Wylie seems to put Shekina at ease. She laughs more, leans back in her chair, and talks of challenges as opportunities instead of barriers. Her next opportunity: Admission to the University of Utah, where she hopes to begin to study business in the spring.

Once she’s earned her degree, One Refugee’s career-advancement program will be there for her, should she need it. The woman running it certainly understands how out-of-reach the idea of a stable professional life can be for someone who has lost almost everything. Mlikota fled Bosnia in 1992, just weeks before residents of her hometown were thrown in concentration camps by Serbian militants. She spent the next five years in Germany, where she became a registered nurse, married a fellow Bosnian refugee, and got pregnant with their first child. But when the Bosnian war officially ended, Germany expelled the 320,000 refugees it had absorbed.

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“That’s when the panic hits,” Mlikota says. She couldn’t remain in Germany, but dangerous ethnic tension still gripped Bosnia. “I’m pregnant. We can’t go to Bosnia.  . . .  It’s just like, what do we do now?”

After Mlikota and her husband Denis settled in Salt Lake City in 1998, she noticed a sign in front of O.C. Tanner announcing that it was hiring. At the time, it was a jewelry business that produced employee-recognition items; other Bosnian refugees had started working there and encouraged the Mlikotas to apply. The couple barely spoke English but were hired to manufacture rings.  They’ve been with the company ever since, working their way up the corporate ladder. Mlikota managed the company’s sales-training program before joining One Refugee.

Selma Mlikota is heading up One Refugee’s career-advancement program. [Photo: courtesy of Selma Mlikota]
The career-advancement program is only in the beginning stages. “We’re literally doing R&D right now,” Mlikota says. She is recruiting corporate partners for an internship program—a local bank and real estate investment firm have signed on—and wants executives to act as mentors. But unknowns remain: Are graduates getting jobs in their fields of study, or “survival jobs” that just pay the bills? Are they underpaid relative to non-refugee colleagues? Should One Refugee finance graduate education or professional training?

The answers to these questions will shape a program that tries to mold students and match them with companies where they have the best odds of success. To that end, Mlikota is engaging in some corporate anthropology to find out why her own employer became so refugee-friendly. “You have to find a company that has the same culture, the same values,” she says. “It’s a lot harder to change a company’s values.”

O.C. Tanner started hiring refugees in the 1970s as a sort of corporate goodwill, but executives found that refugee applicants often had the traits of model employees. “Someone that has the gumption, the willingness, the fortitude, the tenacity . . . to go through what they go through—that’s a test of their mettle,” CEO Dave Petersen tells me, sitting in his office at O.C. Tanner’s gleaming Salt Lake City headquarters.

The company has expanded far beyond jewelry, becoming a $500 million firm that specializes in corporate culture and employee recognition (it still manufactures commemorative rings, plaques, and trophies in its Salt Lake City headquarters). Of O.C. Tanner’s 1,400 U.S.-based employees, at least 320 are foreign-born, and a large portion of them are former refugees.

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One Refugee veteran Khada Dulal, who earned a bachelor’s in nursing from the University of Utah, with Boyer. [Photo: Marissa Crookston, courtesy of One Refugee]
O.C. Tanner strives to treat its refugee employees the same as their American-born coworkers, but it is pragmatic about the challenges they face. English classes are available to employees, whom managers also push to speak in group presentations. Manufacturing workers are expected to chip in ideas about how the company can produce its rings, pins, and trophies more efficiently. “You kind of have an obligation to improve the processes,” says Lidija Alomerovic, a manufacturing team leader and a former Bosnian refugee. Concurrent focuses on skill development and productivity improvement mean O.C. Tanner rarely lays off employees.

Petersen paints O.C. Tanner as a pure meritocracy. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a corporate policy about diversity or quotas. We’re sort of colorblind and origin-blind,” he says. The company doesn’t monitor the racial demographics of its workforce, and employee nationality is self-reported. Still, there are vulnerabilities. Without dedicated monitoring, biases can creep in unnoticed. No foreign-born workers have ascended to the company’s executive level, and many still start in the manufacturing division. This allows O.C. Tanner to hire based more on personality traits and less on technical skills, but it also exposes refugee-filled positions to automation and cost cutting.

But maybe, if One Refugee’s career push succeeds, students will worry less about those kinds of job losses. And as the nonprofit explores ways to help high school students prepare for college, it’s hoping to chart a path for success even earlier. “We don’t want the average age to be 27,” Burton says. “We want it to be 18 or 19.”

Having One Refugee’s support has enabled Shekina, for one, to cultivate aspirations typical to U.S. students: Obtain a degree, then land a job at a big nonprofit or the United Nations. For someone who so recently was focused on day-to-day survival, the advance planning One Refugee fosters is a welcome change.

“We have resources that will say, yes, you went through a lot. Now let’s try to fix this,” Shekina says. “And that’s very important that we have people who are willing to cooperate, and who are willing to help us start a new life . . . they give everything they have to educate, to get us careers, and help us succeed.”