Church News and Events

DI Provides Opportunities to Learn English, Obtain Job Skills

Contributed By By Ryan McDonald, Church News staff writer

  • 27 August 2013

Eh Gay from Burma is among refugees receiving job training and income by working in the clothing section at the LDS Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City.  Photo by Laura Seitz.

The tasks Farzaneh Abedini completed as a cashier at a Deseret Industries thrift store in Murray, Utah, on a recent July afternoon were typical for people involved in her line of work. She rang items up, answered questions, and counted change for a steady line of customers buying books, toys, and other goods.

But for Miss Abedini, these tasks represented more than just a job. A refugee who has lived in the United States since December 2011, she has aspirations of becoming a pharmacy technician one day and is utilizing the DI’s job training program to help her learn English and other job skills.

“I like it here,” she said of the United States. “It’s good for me, I think. I can study here. In my country I couldn’t.”

Miss Abedini is among many whom the DI system is helping to learn of the opportunities available in the United States. More than 600 refugees—defined as people who leave their country to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster—received job training from the DI across its 42 locations in seven states in 2012. This group makes up approximately 15 percent of the total number of people Deseret Industries provided job training to last year.

More than 30 countries and 20 languages are represented by refugees receiving these services. Where refugees come from during a given time period is often correlated with where different world conflicts are taking place. In most cases, these people are referred to the DI by local bishops.

“They’re part of the poor and the needy the Lord has asked us to serve,” said Doug Roberts, development manager at the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City.

Over the course of about a year, depending on the individual, refugees, or “associates” as they are called in the workplace, learn principles such as the importance of punctuality and tasks such as how to stock shelves and communicate with coworkers.

Each is also assigned a team of individuals that helps them adjust to life in the United States. Job coaches are in place to act as supervisors and help associates achieve job-related goals. A development specialist helps them connect with employers in the community, and mentors serve as sort of case managers. These three aides meet with associates quarterly to assess their progress.

Deseret Industries serves refugees from more than 30 countries who speak some 20 languages. Photo by Laura Seitz.

In addition to learning job skills, associates are also able to learn English in a classroom setting. Those who work at the LDS Humanitarian Center spend half of the working day in the classroom and the other half performing job tasks. Those who work at other locations are given the opportunity to be set up with an outside organization that teaches English. Deseret Industries typically pays for this outside learning. Job coaches work to help associates learn how the things they are taught in the classroom relate to their work. For example, associates will learn about prepositions in the classroom and then practice, for example, putting items “underneath” something when on the job.

Troy Casper, a manager at the LDS Humanitarian Center, will often meet associates who have little or no English-speaking ability when they first begin working. Because his job does not entail associating with them on a daily basis, he is more able to notice an improvement in those skills after a few months’ time.

“To me, it just blows my mind how quickly that can happen,” he said. “It’s like I’m talking to a new person. I’ll say that to them and they’ll laugh, but to see their whole vision and their ability now to function in this society is amazing.”

A man named Shahram, who asked that his last name not be used, is an associate working at the LDS Humanitarian Center. A refugee who came seeking religious freedom, he has been in the United States with his daughter and parents for nearly two years. He hopes to attend a university in the near future.

“Opportunity is opening for me,” he said. “These people (at the center) are good people. I love these people.”

Samuel Brown, a development specialist at the Murray location, said much of what makes his job meaningful is seeing how the associates value the opportunity they are given to progress in society, thanks to the Deseret Industries program.

Kah Phone of Burma sorts clothing at the LDS Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City on August 16. Photo by Laura Seitz.

“Typically, refugees are very consistent regarding work,” he said. “They rarely miss work, and they have a really good work ethic.”

Having worked as a job coach since 1995, Wendy Millet said loving those she works with is at the core of why she does it.

“[So many of them] appreciate so much the non-bias attitude that’s here,” she said, adding that many she has helped have experienced very traumatic things in their lives. “It doesn’t matter what their life was like before. We love them anyway.”

Ultimately, Brother Roberts said what makes the program successful is the combination of the spiritual and practical components at play each day.

“Everybody’s combining together in an effort to help these people get up to speed as quickly as possible,” he said. “It’s a tremendous effort and takes a lot of coordination and so forth, but it’s working and it’s working well.”