Local Nonprofit Gives Refugees “The Long Welcome”

Heartfelt Tidbits rolls out the welcome mat.

For our November 2017 issue, we look at immigration in the city: Who we were, who we are, and who we’re becoming.

As I enter The Welcome Project in Camp Washington, Sheryl Rajbhandari leans in for a hug. The space, a partnership between Rajbhandari’s refugee- and immigrant-serving nonprofit Heartfelt Tidbits and Wave Pool art gallery, is dominated by long folding tables where women learn to quilt. There’s Bibi Rai, originally from Bhutan, who I recognize from one of Heartfelt Tidbit’s language classes I helped out with. (I met Rajbhandari about a year ago, and if you know her for any amount of time, you usually end up volunteering.) I’m introduced to a woman named Josie, whose husband was transferred here for work at Aldi’s, sitting across from a woman who came to Utah on a student visa in 2013, disappeared, then surfaced at a Cincinnati homeless shelter three years later, a victim of human trafficking.

Illustration by Lena Vargas Afanasieva

A decade ago, Rajbhandari was an enterprise architect at Teradata advising C-level executives on how to maximize profit. She was paid well and traveled frequently. One night her husband, who speaks Nepali, got a call from Catholic Charities, which resettles refugee families in the area. One of the families was locked in a motel room—had been for a week—and wouldn’t open the door. No one spoke their language.

It turned out the family didn’t understand how to use the key card to open the door. “They didn’t know how to use the toilet, the bathtub, the sink, the TV. Nothing,” recalls Rajbhandari.

It rattled her to think how alone they must have felt. A few weeks’ assistance wasn’t enough. She saw a need for what she calls “the long welcome.” So in 2008, she started Heartfelt Tidbits. “I ask everybody for a tidbit of their time or a tidbit of their groceries or a tidbit of their household items,” says Rajbhandari. She quit her job in 2013. By then, all her income was going to Heartfelt Tidbits anyway.

On an annual budget of $13,000 from private donations—enough to cover costs for insuring and maintaining the vans that transport immigrants and refugees—a fully volunteer force manages sewing and arts programs; language and citizenship classes; job training; community gardens; and nine refugee apartments above The Welcome Project. Welcome actually started this spring as a spin-off of sorts, with a budget of $200,000 (funded in part by the Haile Foundation) that will also house a café and hopefully earn enough to fund a full-time staff member for Heartfelt Tidbits.

Above all, the place is a refuge. “We find most of the anger and hate is directed at our Muslim Americans and the folks from Africa,” says Rajbhandari. She recounts stories of adults and children as young as 5 being harassed, beaten up, having garbage thrown at them. And then there’s the constant fear of deportation: Two years ago, Rajbhandari received a call from a local preschool about a little girl who didn’t understand English and appeared unable to walk. When Rajbhandari arrived, she noticed the little girl’s shoes were tight. Once the shoes came off, the little girl took off running. Rajbhandari hung around to meet the parents, recent immigrants from Guatemala who didn’t have status and were afraid to ask for help. Rajbhandari took them to food and clothing pantries, and helped them file for asylum and get work visas. Now she’s training the mother, Lourdes Santos, to manage The Welcome Project.

“When I came [here], I was in the apartment all day with the lights off, blinds closed. I think I was depressed,” says Santos. “I didn’t know how to make friends here. Sheryl, it’s like she opened the door for me.”

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