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Most teenagers would have just walked by the hula hoops stacked against the wall, choosing to photograph their friends as they mugged for the camera.

But a refugee who has never used one was attracted by the colors and textures of the toy.

That was the experience Joshua Samson had as he worked with refugee youth on a portrait project for Spy Hop Productions, a nonprofit group that works with teens to help them tell their stories.

"We asked them to take photos of whatever they wanted, and they did bring back a lot of things that symbolized their cultures or their bicultural nature," Samson said. "They looked at things through a different lens."

Spy Hop is now partnering with the Salt Lake County Library to teach a free six-week course, called Speak Up!, during which refugee youth will learn how to use digital media as a way to share their voices.

"We want to give refugee kids an opportunity to tell their stories," said Nyssa Densley, assistant library manager at the Whitmore Library. "What story they want to tell is up to them, but we want to let them know that their story is important and we want to hear it."

Densley recently moved to Utah from Tucson, Ariz., where she worked extensively with refugee youth.

"I wanted to bring that here," she said. "I knew that Salt Lake City was getting a lot of refugees, and they are an underserved population who I'm passionate about working with."

Samson is one of two full-time Spy Hop employees who will work with the youth at three county library locations: the Whitmore Library in Cottonwood Heights, the Hunter Library in West Valley City and County Government Center in Salt Lake City. Each class can accommodate up to 12 students, and they are still accepting applications to fill spots.

A $25,400 Library Services and Technology Act federal grant, administered through the Utah State Library, keeps the class free and even provides bus passes to students who need transportation to the sessions.

Densley hopes to make the program self-sustaining by offering a small stipend to the most motivated students to teach the next round of classes, she said.

The classes will culminate in a red-carpet screening of the students' films at the Viridian Event Center in West Jordan.

Organizers hope to help share and celebrate as many refugees' stories as possible. While thousands of refugees have resettled in Utah, they often are a hidden population that most people don't know even exist in the Beehive State, Samson said.

According to the State of Utah Refugee Office, about 25,000 refugees live in Utah and 99 percent are in the Salt Lake Valley. About 1,000 new refugees arrive in the state each year. The largest communities are refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Iraq, with about 5,000 people from each of those countries resettling in Utah. The refugee groups arriving most rapidly in Utah now are from Iraq, Burma, Somalia and Bhutan.

"We want to start reaching out and getting those communities involved in what we do, and we also want to let the general Salt Lake City population know about these people and celebrate the multitude of cultures that are here," Samson said.

Twitter: @sheena5427 —

Lending your voice

Hunter Library, 4740 W. 4100 South, West Valley City: Tuesdays, Nov. 13, 20, 27 and Dec. 4, 11 and 18, 4 to 6 p.m.

Whitmore Library, 2197 E. Fort Union Blvd., Cottonwood Heights: Thursdays, Nov. 1, 8, 15, 29 and Dec. 6 and 13, 4 to 6 p.m.

County Government Center, 2001 S. State St.: Wednesdays, Nov. 7, 14, 21, 28 and Dec. 5 and 12, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Those interested need to call Salt Lake County Library's Customer Service at 801-943-4636 to register.