Salt Lake City—Nearly 170 years after the first scrappy band of pioneers made their way into the Salt Lake Valley, the Beehive State remains a beacon of welcome for those looking for a new start.
The Salt Lake Chamber and United Way of Salt Lake recognized some of the modern immigrants making a positive impact on the state with the American Dream Award Wednesday. This year’s recipients were Pamela Atkinson, Abe Bakhsheshy, Jorge Fierro and Dinesh Patel.
Bakhsheshy, known as “Dr. Abe” to most of the students he teaches as professor and director of the Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative at the University of Utah Eccles School of Business, said he was grateful for the chance to bring Mahatma Ghandi’s quote, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” to life through his career.
“I have reflected on this for years, and I have concluded there are few other ways better than teaching to make that change,” he said.
Patel, managing director and founder of Patel Family Investments, and the holder of 15 U.S. patents and foreign counterparts, said immigrants were the fuel behind surging American innovation—immigrants accounted for at least one founder of a third of all venture-backed companies that went public between 2006 and 2012.
“The importance of immigrants is far and wide—to achieve this kind of dream, you have to dream big. … Of course, simply dreaming is not going to get you there; you have to have action,” he said. “I’m an Indian by origin and African by birth, American by nationality and a Utahn by choice.”
Dubbed “the Mother Teresa of Utah,” Atkinson is known as a tireless advocate for the homeless, refugees and low-income families in the state. Trained as a nurse in the United Kingdom, Atkinson said she has never had any intention of seeking attention, but has always simply relished helping others.
“It feels a trifle odd to receive an award for doing what I love so much,” Atkinson said. “What I’ve learned as an immigrant is there are so many opportunities but one cannot sit back—one has to take advantage of those opportunities. But there are so many people willing to help you on your way.”
Fierro, who started his Rico brand of foods from his mother’s recipes and has grown the business to become a thriving local presence, said when he was growing up in Mexico, he idolized America and the idea of moving to the U.S. Now, as an American, he has seen a fear to accept those who seem different—a trait he finds at odds with the strength, innovation and opportunity he looked up to as a boy.
“We need to stop treating each other with so much disrespect when we don’t even know each other,” he said. “I’m not different from anybody else—I just happened to be born somewhere else.”
The sentiment of fear in differences was echoed by Ali Noora, executive director of the National Immigration Forum and author of There Goes the Neighborhood, which examines how communities—including Utah—have dealt with large influxes of immigrants. Noora said the basic thesis of the book was that, while politics seem to be at the center of the discussion about immigration policy, he felt the focus should instead be more compassionate.
“It’s not about politics or policy, it’s about culture and family,” he said. “We need to communicate with people’s hearts and minds.”
Noora also commended Utah’s vocal and steady stance as a pro-immigration state that has welcomed thousands of refugees with open arms. That measured and compassionate approach is particularly needed now, as the political climate grows colder and colder towards immigrants and refugees, he said.
“Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have had this discussion, but now people understand their child’s best friend is undocumented, that the family the next pew over is undocumented,” he said. “Utah’s leadership has never been more vital than it is today.”