Black refugees ask if Utah will really accept them
By Adam Tanner
CAMP WILLIAMS, Utah (Reuters) – Asked whether he would
relocate permanently to Utah after being brought here as a
refugee from Hurricane Katrina, Larry Andrew rattled off a
series of questions on Friday on the delicate issue of race.
“How do the adults really feel about us moving in?” he
asked at Camp Williams, a military base 21 miles south of Salt
Lake City housing about 400 refugees from last weeks disaster.
“What if I find a Caucasian girl and decide to date her?
“Will I have to deal with whispering behind me and
eyeballing me?” asked the 36-year-old black man.
For the mostly poor, black refugees evacuated from New
Orleans, few places are as geographically remote and culturally
alien as this corner of Utah, where 0.2 percent of the
population in the nearest town is black.
Still, some refugees, especially younger adults, say they
are ready to make a new start in the region even though they
did not know they were coming until the doors shut on the
airplane evacuating them from New Orleans.
“I’m planning a whole new life,” said Phillip Johnson II,
23, who has already arranged an apartment in Salt Lake City.
“It’s an opportunity knocking for me out here.”
He said even though the population of New Orleans was
two-thirds black, his appearance with dreadlocks and a goatee
still worked against him. “In New Orleans, being a young black
man, you get harassed a lot, stereotyped a lot,” he said.
One of the volunteers at the base, Newton Gborway, who
moved to Utah from Liberia in West Africa five years ago,
shared his first-hand impression of life in an economically
prosperous state with a less than one percent black population.
“Don’t be shocked and surprised if you meet someone who is
mean to you or doesn’t want to associate with you because you
are black,” he told Darisn Evans. “You don’t worry about the
“Everything is going to be okay, but it is just a matter of
Evans said he would remain in Utah, and would like to work
either as a handyman or as a highway patrolman.
His ex-wife Tanya Andrews, 44, said race played a part in
their escape from flooded New Orleans, an adventure which she
said included looting food, a television and a boat to get to
higher land. She said rescuers picked them up only after a
lighter-skinned black woman waved down a helicopter.
UTAH OPEN ARMS
So far the local community has welcomed the refugees with
open arms, although they say they face an adjustment to life in
Utah, stronghold of the socially conservative Mormon Church.
“Any time you go in where you are in the minority — and
I’m experienced in this — it’s going to be more difficult,”
said Wayne Mortimer, mayor of Bluffdale next to Camp Williams.
He cited his past missionary work in Canada when he was a
relatively rare Mormon. Mortimer said his town of 6,500, a
well-to-do bedroom community of Salt Lake City, had 20
low-income housing units available for the refugees.
“When you are an affluent community like we have, the
greatest blessing we can have is to lift someone else,” he said
in an interview.
Larry Andrew’s brother Adrian and sister Tanya, despite
initial shock about being sent to Utah, say they will remain in
Utah. Even Larry, despite his doubts, says the state is
offering him a unique chance.
“According to what I see, it will be beneficial to me
economically, even socially,” he said. “But how would they
adapt to me?”