Former Jazz player becomes first Utah ambassador for refugee community

May 22, 2013

Former Utah Jazz player said one of his goals is to help refugees in the community.
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Monday Governor Herbert appointed basketball star Thurl Bailey as the first ambassador to the Utah refugee community.

Thurl Bailey knows a lot about a lot of things. He played for the Utah Jazz in the 1980s and 1990s, is an actor, a singer/songwriter, and a public speaker.

"I’m not just an athlete. I’m a community advocate, I love people, I love their stories, their journeys, they inspire me," Bailey said.

These qualities may be part of the reason that Governor Gary Herbert appointed Bailey as an ambassador to the Utah refuge community. Bailey will be the first person to hold the position in the state.

"There’s a lot of goals there, I don’t want to just be a figurehead," Bailey said. "The governor has really given me a task to bring awareness and education and also to help bring that notoriety, I guess you could say, to this issue."

There are 50,000 refugees in Utah, 1,100 come every year. Gerald Brown Director of the Refugees Service Office within the Department of Workforce Services, and said many of the refugees, can't speak English. Some of the Utah refugees are primarily coming from Iraq, Burma, Somalia, and Bhutan, and don’t read or write in their native languages either.

"Refugees are people who have been persecuted," Brown said. "All of them have experienced trauma of one sort or another at some point in their lives and they are struggling to deal with it."

Brown said currently refugees that come into the state have 3-6 months of aid from two non-profits that help with organizing a place to live, food, and registering kids for school. They also have funding from Health and Human Services that helps with social services such as English classes that can last up to 5 years.

But both Brown and Bailey say there are many additional needs. These include access to transportation, finding employment, and becoming part of a community.
"We think that mainstream people befriending refugees is the one most important thing that anybody can do," Brown said. "When that happens, understanding is creating and it all works."

Bailey said creating a community is one of his main goals as ambassador.

"They’re a part of our culture now and they bring their cultures with them," Bailey said. "With all of the messaging and events we do it’s about getting the public involved. Whether it’s volunteering your time, whether it’s just coming to be educated, whether it’s knowing about your neighbor who could be a refugee themselves. It’s about getting involved."

Bailey is also charged with reporting back to the governor.

"He is counting on me to be able to integrate with the refugee community and also to come back to him and say, this is what the refugee community is asking for. You know some of these needs, but I’ve had first hand conversations with this group of people and these are some of the things I think we need to strongly put on the table," Bailey said.

Both Bailey and Brown suggest this may include new programs to better integrate refugees into their new community.