Ismael’s Story

Navigating a new culture, language, and way of life.

Words and photos by ambassador James Roh

In honor of World Refugee Day (6/20), we are going to share the story of Ismael, a local Ugandan refugee who was resettled to our community in Salt Lake City and received by our partner organization, the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

After fleeing Uganda, Ismael spent two years in a Kenyan refugee camp before finally being approved to relocate to the United States. Out of the 70 million displaced people in the world, only one percent get sanctuary.

“Getting out of the camp is a miracle,” Ismael said. “It’s a dream come true.”

When refugees are relocated to a sanctuary nation, they are removed from the immediate danger but their hardships are far from over. Navigating a new culture, language, and way of life can be very overwhelming.  


“The dream came to reality, but that couldn’t remove the fact that everything was new to me,” Ismael said about his resettlement in the U.S.  


Thankfully, the IRC’s Salt Lake City office is able to welcome Ismael and many other refugees to their new home and assist them through the resettlement process. Whether it’s scheduling doctor appointments, finding housing, or providing invaluable one-on-one assistance, the IRC helps refugees get on their feet, and helps set them up for long-term success.       


“They showed love for refugees” Ismael. “I was so amazed.  Without them, it would be very hard because you know nothing.”

Ismael completes a car-buying class with Shauna La Beau, a financial education specialist at the IRC.

For many refugees, earning an income is a major challenge upon arrival.  To address this, the IRC hosts classes, called job club, that teach recent refugees how to submit a resume, apply for jobs, interview, and many other job-related skills that may be foreign to them. As refugees hone their skills, Cotopaxi offers a program for participants of the IRC’s job club that pays individuals to write “thank you” cards to Cotopaxi customers. This program offers refugees a simple way to make money while they find a more permanent source of income.


Ismael’s success in the job club and card-writing program helped him get hired at the Salt Lake City airport to supervise several stores owned by Paradies Lagardere.  


“If they have good skills, they have good skills,” said Bob Taylor, HR manager at Paradies Lagardere, about his company’s willingness to hire Ismael and other recent refugees.  “We knew it’d be a steep learning curve for him but we knew he could handle it.  So far he has done very well.” 

Ismael counts money at a cash register during his evening shift as a supervisor of several Paradies Lagardere shops in the Salt Lake City International Airport.


“Refugees are not bad people; they are people,” Ismael said about some preconceived stereotypes of refugees in the U.S. “Being a refugee is not a choice. No one wants to be a refugee. If they are given an opportunity, like we have, they can turn their lives around. They can contribute to the community in a positive way.”

Ismael shakes hands with car salesman Italo Jussani after successfully negotiating a deal to purchase the car he had spent months saving for. Ismael qualified for an initiative from the IRC in Salt Lake City that provided a matching grant toward the down payment on a car. With his newfound mobility, Ismael has decided to relocate to Columbus, Ohio, where he will reunite with friends from the Kenyan refugee camp. For Ismael and many other refugees in a foreign land, a sense of community and a support network is paramount. His job has offered to transfer him to a position at the Columbus International Airport.