(ABC4) – When Sasha Sloan — Miss Utah 2021 — was in high school, she says she went through periods where she felt isolated and like she had no one to turn to.

When she met Shurooq Al Jewari, Utah’s community program coordinator for nonprofit refugee advocacy group Their Story Is Our Story, though, she found someone to lean on. Al Jewari, too, had experienced a similar feeling of loneliness, and the two bonded over their past experiences.

“Both Shurooq and I felt in high school at different times that we didn’t have anyone to talk to and we were dealing with this burden of our mental health, and we didn’t know how to carry that burden,” Sloan remembers.

Sloan decided to make refugee advocacy the primary focus of her social impact initiative for her Miss Utah campaign, so working with Al Jewari and Their Story Is Our Story was a natural fit. But as the two grew closer, they realized that in addition to focusing on refugee advocacy, they also both had a shared passion for mental health.

The pair set to work developing a workshop aimed at high school students that focuses on mental health and combatting bullying. And the workshop, which officially launched on Tuesday, February 22 at Utah State University, could not have arrived at a better time.

Following two recent child suicides, that of Izzy Tichenor in November 2021 and Drayke Hardman earlier this year, the Utah community has been reeling from the blunt reality of the mental health and bullying crisis facing our youth.

Miss Utah 2021 Sasha Sloan and Their Story Is Our Story Utah Community Program Coordinator Shurooq Al Jewari preparing to teach their workshop at Utah State University on Tuesday, February 22. Photo courtesy of Their Story Is Our Story

“Since Utah has such a high teen suicide rate, it’s a huge concern to our community. Shurooq and I have this shared challenge despite our different backgrounds, so we felt like one of the things that we could do with this presentation is use the opportunity to create space to have conversations with Utah’s youth about mental health, and in particular, how exclusion is linked to mental health and suicide.”

The program curriculum starts with an introduction by Sloan and Al Jewari, followed by an opportunity for the students to introduce themselves and identify aspects of their personalities that make them who they are.

“By doing so, it will help them to understand themselves,” Al Jewari explains. “Then we’ll also get to walk through the negative labels that have been given out throughout their lives. However, we’re also adding positive labels and [looking at] how we took those negative labels over them, and then changing them into positive ones.”

And by examining exclusion and labels in this way, the two women are also tying the workshop back to Their Story Is Our Story’s roots: welcoming and integrating refugees with open arms.

Al Jewari, a refugee from Iraq who has lived in Utah for eight years, says that the workshop will help students to “find refugees and become better friends with refugees and then integrate them into our community.”

And by providing this education, Sloan and Al Jewari hope they can help others cope with and avoid the difficult experiences they both suffered in high school. And beyond that, they are hopeful that the positive change will reverberate throughout the community.

“We’re hoping that by giving them an example of myself and Sasha will tell them that they’re not the only one,” Al Jewari says. “And it will also help them learn a little bit about mental health and let them know that they’re not alone in this.”

Sloan and Al Jewari are in the midst of continuing to book the workshop in schools around Utah. Those interesting in scheduling a workshop can book by contacting either Sherianne Schow, Their Story Is Our Story’s director of advocacy at sherianneschow@tsosrefugees.org or Sloan’s booking manager at bookings@missutah.com.