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New Americans

Local photographer's project shows Utah immigrants' and refugees' "struggle, spirit and inspiration."

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“I wanted to do something that showed that Salt Lake City supports refugees and immigrants,” Nick Sokoloff says of his photos. - ENRIQUE LIMÓN
  • Enrique Limón
  • “I wanted to do something that showed that Salt Lake City supports refugees and immigrants,” Nick Sokoloff says of his photos.

Adhal Awan's eyes filled with tears the first time she saw her portrait. Twenty years ago, she'd been living in Khartoum, the capital of the Republic of Sudan, hoping that one day she'd be able to leave the war-torn country and live somewhere that offered her more opportunities. Now, her photograph hangs on the wall of a car wash in Salt Lake City's Granary District.

"If they can see this and smile and know that there is a light somewhere, there are opportunities," Awan says of the connection she hopes people make after seeing her likeness. "There is a life somewhere. Don't let your weaknesses define you."

Awan's portrait was taken by local photographer and graphic artist Nick Sokoloff, and is part of a far-reaching project to heighten public awareness of local immigrants.

Sokoloff began taking portraits of immigrants and refugees in May 2017, but came up with the idea for his project the week after Nov. 8, 2016. "The election was the impetus to get off my ass," Sokoloff says of the day Donald Trump was elected president. He'd spent much of the past year worried about Trump's xenophobic, authoritarian speeches that portrayed immigrants and refugees as criminal maniacs. But it wasn't until Trump won the presidency that Sokoloff felt impelled to do something to support Salt Lake City's immigrant communities. "It was just the time to stand up," he says.

Sokoloff has posted about 40 of the pictures on "The New Americans of Salt Lake" Facebook page. Each is accompanied by a few paragraphs that recount each person's journey or explains what life in the U.S. means to them, giving immigrants and refugees a space to advocate for themselves and show others that Utah isn't the white, homogenous state it's stereotyped to be.

"We do have a lot of Mormon, white people, but we also have this beautiful multicultural community in our own backyard," Amy Dott Harmer, executive director of the Utah Refugee Connection, says. Harmer is a collaborator on Sokoloff's project. She helps manage The New Americans of Salt Lake's Facebook and Instagram pages, and sometimes writes the text that accompanies each subject's picture. She says Sokoloff's art is especially important in light of the Trump administration's recent announcement that the number of refugees resettled in the U.S. next year would be capped at 30,000, the lowest since the start of the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980.

"People seem to think they take more from us than they ever give," Harmer says. But that's not how she sees it—refugees are innovative, creative thinkers, a mindset honed from struggle that can make powerful, positive contributions to local economies. "The reality is they contribute much more than they ever take from us."

Some of Sokoloff's pictures recently made their way off the computer screen and onto the walls of local businesses. He was one of 15 artists awarded a total of $147,060 by the Redevelopment Authority of Salt Lake City. They are creating 11 public-facing murals on the exteriors of private businesses in the Granary District Project Area—roughly located between Interstate 15 and 300 West, and 600 South and 1000 South. A public gathering to celebrate the artworks' completion is scheduled in the area from 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29. Art enthusiasts will be able to reflect on how the new pieces add to the community's identity as they walk or bike around the neighborhood.

In addition to being visually engaging, all the designs commissioned for the Granary District Mural Grant Program reflect the community's character, as well as the diversity of Salt Lake City's artistic community, RDA Project Coordinator Corinne Piazza says. The hope is that such public artwork will lead to even more investment in the district, a part of the city that has experienced economic revitalization in recent years thanks to more businesses opening within its boundaries. "Art really inspires engagement and investment," Piazza believes.

Sokoloff's piece is located on the exterior of Kenny's Car Wash and Paw Paws, a self-service dog wash at 624 S. 300 West. Photographs of five women's faces are pictured on three banners that hang on the brick buildings' exteriors. Each subject is a refugee from Nepal, South Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan or Oromia, an ethnically based state within Ethiopia. Similar to the format on social media, there's a quote beside each picture, giving viewers a glimpse, as the project's tagline suggests, into each subject's "struggle, spirit and inspiration."

Sokoloff credits Ali Gempeler, Paw Paws' owner, for embracing the photos adorning her business' walls. Sokoloff had a hard time finding owners willing to be part of the project, and approached four other establishments before Paw Paws and Kenny's. "There's so much going on in the world today that you have to support what you believe in," Gempeler says. "All the refugees are real people trying to make a living and support the community."

Twenty more Sokoloff portraits will be displayed for three months at the City and County Building starting Thursday, Sept. 27. The photographer also is seeking funding to allow him to place large public banners on the sides of public and private buildings throughout the city. "They'll be more prominent spaces and they'll be bigger," Sokoloff says of the larger-scale placement.

Jojo Beyene is one of the persons Sokoloff photographed. She and her family came to the U.S. 17 years ago after her father won a green card in the federal government's diversity lottery program. Her parents never had the opportunity to get an education in Ethiopia, but each of their children has either earned a bachelor's or master's degree, is working toward finishing school, or has a stable and successful career, all achievements Beyene doesn't think possible if they hadn't come to the U.S. Beyene says she hopes Sokoloff's project demonstrates a simple fact to citizens lucky enough to be born in the U.S.: "We're just trying to survive and live our life, too."

Awan, whose likeness now hangs outside Kenny's Car Wash, has not only survived, but thrived, since moving to Salt Lake City from South Sudan. Checking off the things that might have altered her life's path and stopped her from achieving her dreams—"I'm a mother of five. A second-language student. Not from this country."—Awan says none of that will stop her from graduating next year with a master's of social work from the University of Utah. "I don't believe something is going to be impossible for me. I believe that everything is possible."

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