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January 17, 2020

Meet one woman making Salt Lake City a welcoming place for refugees


Take a walk through City Hall in Salt Lake City on any given day and you’re likely to run into Fatima Dirie. 

“These are the faces of refugees in the community sharing their story,” Fatima explains while standing in front of a series of photos of newly resettled refugees who now call Utah home. “So, anyone who comes here, they know that refugees feel welcome and they are part of the city.”

On this day, Fatima is hosting a delegation from Brazil visiting to learn best practices for local governments resettling refugees. In 2019, Brazil welcomed its first refugees under a new resettlement program.

A former refugee from Somalia, Fatima was resettled to Salt Lake City with her family in 1997 while still in middle school. The family escaped war back home, first finding refuge in neighboring Kenya, then ultimately finding safety and an opportunity to rebuild in Utah.

More than twenty years later, Fatima is not only empowering refugees in her local community, she is making an impact at the national and international level.

“My role is to always empower others, to lift others, and to make sure that people understand each other by first getting to know one another,” she shares.

Fatima hall of congress

Her calling to serve others is rooted in very humble beginnings.

Fatima learned English quickly and immediately found herself thrust into the role of the family interpreter.

“I remember having to miss school to go to doctors’ appointments with my aunts and my parents, to help with job applications and to go with them on job interviews,” Fatima recalls.

In high school, Fatima’s dedication to service deepened. She began volunteering with a local refugee resettlement agency where she says she, “realized her passion for helping others.”

Fatima with students

As Fatima has progressed in her career, her work now is not only focused directly on helping refugees, but as a leader in the Salt Lake community, she is creating platforms for others to help as well.

In the mayor’s office, she has breathed new life into the Know Your Neighbor volunteer program that connects Salt Lakers with newly resettled refugee families. The program now has more than 300 volunteers serving more than 200 families.

“Our goal is to make sure that every refugee is connected to an American friend, and that they don't feel isolated, they're a part of the community,” says Fatima. “This program emphasizes integration, and with integration there's a two-way system  you can learn from refugees and refugees can also learn from you.”

Empowering the voices of refugees has been another key driver in Fatima’s career. Today, she’s doing this both in Salt Lake City and at the national level.

Fatima holds a leadership role with Refugee Congress, a refugee-led advocacy organization comprised of delegates from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia who champion refugee issues. The organization gives voice to refugees across the country and seeks to use their personal experiences to influence decision-makers on critical domestic and international issues that affect refugee communities.

“Refugee Congress is about amplifying refugees’ voices and working together to make their communities stronger,” says Fatima. “Working with the other delegates, I’ve learned creative ways to engage refugees, not just on a local level, but also on a national level.”

In her local community, Fatima is particularly mindful of the needs of resettled refugee young people.

“I didn't have mentors, I didn't have guidance,” Fatima recalls. “It's important for me to reflect on what I didn't have and to share what I’ve learned with high school and college students.”

“I went into this work to see others grow, to see others become individuals who are contributing and giving back to their communities. For me, I feel like I'm just guiding them to that direction. It's the right thing for me to do.”

How you can help

USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, supports the full journey of refugees. Not only do our donors help refugees in their greatest time of need, but their support builds awareness for resettled refugees living in the U.S. Former refugees like Fatima have woven themselves into the fabric of American society and are making lasting contributions to their communities. With your help, more refugees will have the opportunity to build a peaceful life and give their family a bright future.  

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