To Welcome With Open Arms

By Elizabeth Garbe

Community Impact Director of Public Policy

Last night my family had some friends over so that we could all meet a foreign exchange student from Pakistan, Seema, who had recently begun staying with them.  For the next year Seema, this young, smart girl will be attending Highland High School and exploring the world of the American Teenager.  While talking with this student, I was in awe at how independent, well educated, and focused she was.  Seema speaks five languages, attends a school far away from her home, and plans on being a doctor.  However, she meets many struggles because she comes from a town where all of the schools have been destroyed by the Taliban and most schools that are close are too dangerous for her to attend, simply because she is a girl.  Despite this, her visit to America is not about seeking a better life, but about learning a new culture and being exposed to new ideas.

Later, I started to worry about how Seema, whom I am learning is utterly amazing, may be received in an American high school–knowing how difficult high school can be with its social aspects and cliquey teenagers.  However, then I sat back and looked at all of the people who were in our home welcoming her to our state.  Many people supported her coming to Utah by spending hours preparing her new home and helping her new exchange mother, Laurel, get ready for her arrival.  These are the people that will support her as she submerges herself into her new Utah life.

One of United Way of Salt Lake’s priorities is to create cohesive communities to address Utah’s changing demographics by increasing the broader community’s level of trust, compassion and reciprocity of immigrants and refugees.  This young girl from Pakistan is being welcomed with open arms to our close-knit community of friends and families, but we must remember that not all immigrants and refugees are welcomed with such acceptance.  In partnership with multiple organizations, UWSL’s welcome centers located in a number of local neighborhoods, work to create a safe atmosphere for people joining our neighborhoods. I think it is important for each of us to ask ourselves on a regular basis how we can be involved in creating an inviting community for people who seem different from us.

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