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South Salt Lake • Something remarkable is happening in South Salt Lake.

The city of 25,000 has 14 community centers — including one specifically dedicated to refugees, called the Hser Ner Moo Community Center.

They promise this: Every child has the opportunity to attend and graduate from college; every resident has a safe, clean home and neighborhood; and everyone has the opportunity to be healthy and prosper.

The department that oversees the centers is called Promise South Salt Lake. Its 150 employees specialize in education and outreach to connect every resident with a host of resources.

Mayor Cherie Wood and Promise director Domoina Kendell, started the program a year after the 2008 murder of refugee Hser Ner Moo, a 7-year-old Burmese girl, at a South Salt Lake apartment complex, where the community center now is located.

"We knew then that we needed refugees to feel more a part of this community," Wood said recently.

Refugees make up 8 percent of South Salt Lake's population, the highest percentage of any city in the state.

South Salt Lake also is home to other immigrants, as well as low-income workers.

The centers are integrated with city departments, as well as the Granite School District. Promise South Salt Lake also has partnerships with Salt Lake Community College, Westminster College, the University of Utah and United Way, among others.

Promise South Salt Lake's $3.6 million annual budget is 97 percent funded through grants, donations and partnerships, the mayor said.

Outreach is a key to success, said Edward Lopez, refugee liaison coordinator.

"We go and meet with families and ask how we can support them," he said. "We ask them, 'What resources do you need to meet your needs?' "

South Salt Lake is "very innovative" when it comes to serving refugees, according to Asha Parekh, with the refugee services office of the Utah Department of Workforce Services. "They are unique in the way they support residents in their city. It shows awesome leadership."

Promise's top priority is education, Kendell said. "We want to target early ed for kids in homes where English isn't spoken."

Promise hooks up with the Granite School District for out-of-school programs in an effort to boost academic performance and provide activities to keep students out of trouble.

The youth crime rate has plummeted, Wood said. And the student turnover rate has dropped from 80 percent to 20 percent, meaning that refugee families are gaining stability in South Salt Lake.

The high school graduation rate for refugees who attend Hser Ner Moo Community Center is now 90 percent, Wood said. Every South Salt Lake student who graduates from high school and qualifies for government assistance can attend Salt Lake Valley Community College for two years for free. Five recent refugee high school grads have been awarded full-ride college scholarships at Westminster and the University of Utah.

Despite the challenge of a large concentration of refugees, South Salt Lake is a leader in bringing resources to its children, said JaDee Talbot, associate director of community centers for Granite School District.

"They are meeting the needs of these kids," he said. "I've been working with refugees for the past three or four years. South Salt Lake does it better than anyone else."

The Hser Ner Moo Community Center gives refugees a sense of community and belonging, Wood said. "We have kids who have gone through this program and now are mentoring the younger ones."

One such volunteer is Said Mohamed, 18, who just graduated from high school and is college-bound in the fall.

Among other things at the center, he coaches soccer — the international sport loved by most refugees.

"It's very hard to come here from another country," Mohamed said. "What we do here makes it more easy."

The center is godsend in the summer for Sifa Batamuriza, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who fled fighting there with her husband and eight children.

Her 17-year-old son, Patrick Tuyubaahe, attends Cottonwood High School and said the center has helped him and his younger siblings assimilate into a new culture and succeed academically.

"It's very good here," he said. "My younger brothers and sisters come here every single day."

Promise also helps parents, whose language skills often lag behind their children, Kendell said. The program offers English as a Second Language (ESL) and teaches strategies to help parents remain in charge of their families.

Promise also coordinates with other city departments to help refugees find jobs.

"All centers are integrated with families, volunteers, partners and city departments," Kendell said. And Promise follows up to ensure children and adults make progress and don't fall through the cracks.

Promise South Salt Lake has brought the refugee community together, Kendell said. But because all 14 community centers are coordinated to some degree, the program has fostered a more cohesive city. And that, she said, is good for everyone.

Learn more

The Hser Ner Moo Community Center is at 479 E. 2250 South in South Salt Lake. For more information, call 801-466-3238 or visit