Organizations aim to help refugee children vulnerable to gang violence

Jul 28, 2022, 8:04 PM | Updated: 10:33 pm

After a gang-related triple homicide in a West Jordan neighborhood, community organizations are sharing a troubling trend they’re seeing with youth gangs– and explaining how local programs are pushing to help those vulnerable to violence, find a different path in life.

In South Salt Lake, Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, run by the Asian Association of Utah, is still teaching kids lessons even in the middle of summer.

A group of energetic elementary school students grabbed books from a shelf, some eager to show them off to the KSL crew. They were excited, and enthusiastic about reading. At the other end of the room, cubbies for each student were filled with bright drawings, backpacks, and soccer shoes.

Peter Frost, director for Youth and Family Services for the Asian Association of Utah, explained that the kids took a field trip to a park to learn the sport. They were planning to go on a field trip the next day to a swimming pool.

All of the children in their program are refugee or immigrants, who usually don’t have access to those kinds of activities.

Frost explained how these kids arrive in the US behind the curve in academics, facing language barriers, and with parents who work multiple jobs to survive. It often leaves these kids without the right resources to get ahead, creating an uphill battle.

“Refugee and immigrant youth can be more vulnerable to going down the track of gang and violence, because there’s some sort of belonging that they get there,” Frost explained. “They come to a new community, they don’t fit in well with the kids that they meet, they’re still learning a language, they’re still trying to adjust. And so, they find some sort of belonging with a gang.”

A reality made evident last weekend in West Jordan, when three young Yemeni refugee men ages 18 and 20 years old were killed in a gang-related drive-by shooting after attending a house party.

“Obviously I’m very sad to hear the news about these three young men, knowing that they arrived as refugees,” Frost said. “Part of me feels like maybe as a community we let them down a little bit, from not being able to provide them what they needed.”

Three dead in West Jordan shooting, one suspect in custody

Andrea Atencio-Valdez, program manager at Choose Gang Free, called the problem with youth gangs a “crisis.”

“Gang violence is going up. We have gun violence on a rise. Kids are dying,” she said.

She said the problem starts at home with single families, or guardians who work a lot, or may be caught up taking care of other siblings. But she expressed that it’s a community issue, that requires more funding and attention to help it turn around.

Choose Gang Free officers a 5th grade curriculum in the Granite School District, as well as secondary prevention and intervention in Canyons and Granite School Districts. Two advocates work in Granite schools, while five work in Canyons.

Atencio-Valdez described how they offer a CBT, evidence-based program that involves meeting with kids one hour once a week, for about 12 to 16 weeks.

“Giving them tools to put in their tool box to stay away from gangs, to make better choices, to know who they are,” she said. “If we can give the kid the tools to figure out who they are, they are less likely to let somebody else tell them who they are.”

With refugee communities, Choose Gang Free offers other resources for families.

“We do education for parents on the weekends, and it’s just to educate parents on what signs to look for,” Atencio-Valdez explained.

She said that every child is one caring adult away from success.

At Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, each child receives support with the hope for success.

“We’re trying to look at, what do we do to build up protection, protective factors, and prevent bigger problems,” Frost explained. “Some of those things we do are after school programming, mentoring, parenting programming. We have a mental health team at our main office. All these things are designed to try to give the supports and a wrap-around service, so that we hopefully prevent them from joining a gang, prevent them from getting in trouble.”

Kids in the Asian Association of Utah youth programs, Frost indicated, have the opportunity to keep attending through high school.
He emphasized how he believes this is a community issue, not just a refugee issue.

“Yes, some of the kids that these things happen to come from a refugee background, but they’re our kids, they’re in our community,” he said. “We need to look at them as any other kid.”

Click here for more information on the Asian Association of Utah Refugee and Immigrant Center.

Click here for more information on Choose Gang Free.

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Organizations aim to help refugee children vulnerable to gang violence