Utah residents are rushing to serve refugees arriving from Afghanistan

Dec 14, 2021, 5:32 AM | Updated: Dec 17, 2021, 11:08 am
Utah residents step up to serve refugees like this newly arrived Afghan family...
Volunteer Dane Smith visits with a newly arrived Afghan family temporarily living in a hotel in West Valley City. (Josh Tilton/KSL Podcasts)
(Josh Tilton/KSL Podcasts)

SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah — The plight of Afghan refugees in Utah is prompting residents to look for ways they can serve those in need. 

Afghan nationals connect to serve refugees in Utah

In August, Nazifa Rajabi was watching the news on TV, as the Taliban took power in Afghanistan and people were running for their lives. She was sitting in the comfort of her spacious home at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah when everything came flooding back.

“What I saw in the news, it triggered my memory,” Rajabi said.

Twenty-three years ago, she and her family also fled Afghanistan. Her family is Hazara, a minority group persecuted by the Taliban. Her father, a successful business owner, was killed during the civil war in the late nineties. Rajabi, her mother, and five siblings crossed the border into Pakistan.

“We escaped with nothing,” she said.

A new home in the United States

As the oldest child, Rajabi worked to keep the family alive, and her younger siblings also worked as carpet weavers. They did this for three years before making it to the U.S. When they arrived in Salt Lake City, she was 15 years old and had missed several years of school in the turmoil. When she thought about the refugees arriving, she remembered how it felt.

“Getting here with no language, nothing, starting from zero to make a life — it kind of triggered my memory. I felt really sad.”

Rajabi said that when her family got to Salt Lake, a resettlement agency provided them with a home with beds with blankets, some food in the refrigerator, and supplies in the bathroom. For the first couple of weeks, she said they sat alone in an otherwise empty apartment, wondering how to make a life in the U.S. But once the small Afghan community found out they existed, things changed.

“They came in and they brought some Afghan rice, they brought us oil, they brought us halaal meat. So that’s the first time we felt like we were welcomed because some of the community members came in and visited us.”

Afghan community steps up to serve Utah refugees

People invited them to a Persian New Year’s party on the first day of Spring. There, they met people who became long-term mentors in their lives. They tutored them, helped them with school, and they also showed them Utah’s parks in the summer; their new friends even taught them how to ski in the winter.

“We were able to embrace the American life,” she said. “We didn’t get any of this help through government or through a resettlement agency. These volunteers were not even associated with any kind of nonprofit, they were just normal community members.”

This is the experience that Rajabi wanted to bring to those fleeing Afghanistan now.

Nine-year-old Yaser, a new arrival from Afghanistan, shows his artwork to volunteers who have come to visit the hotel where he’s staying with his family in West Valley City. (Josh Tilton/KSL Podcasts)

“I wanted to recreate that whole process with these new refugees,” she said. “The help that I received — these families deserve too. So that’s my mission.”

Paying it forward

Rajabi works full-time as an operational risk consultant in the financial services industry, but she’s been spending her nights, weekends, and lunch hours visiting with the newly arrived evacuees. She found that some were staying in hotels for weeks before they could be placed in permanent housing, many of them with children who were not yet enrolled in school.

One 25-year-old evacuee, who didn’t want her name published to protect her family, had been serving in the Afghan armed forces alongside U.S. forces. Her husband — also in the military — was killed before the Taliban take-over. This young mother stayed in a hotel in Midvale for four weeks with her 18-month-old baby and her teenage nephew before being placed in an apartment in Millcreek.

“These families are staying for a long time in hotels and camps,” Rajabi said.

Then when they’re placed in more permanent housing, she said the apartments had little furniture to start a home. They had food stamps, but she wondered how they would buy the other things they needed before they were able to get a job, like diapers and toilet paper. She wanted to fill the gaps, teach them what they needed to know to live here, but with hundreds of people arriving, she realized it was more than she could handle alone.

A unique and exceptional situation

According to the resettlement agencies, about 440 Afghan evacuees have already arrived in Utah, and they are expecting almost that many more by February. With the sudden fall of Afghanistan and the change of presidential administrations with different policies for refugees, the ramp to prepare for them and serve them in Utah has been steep, and the agencies are scrambling to hire staff with the necessary skills in a tight labor market.

“What we have received in three months, it’s more than what we have resettled in the last two to three years,” said Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services.

These arrivals are not like other refugees. They are coming in a short time frame, without advance warning, and they have a temporary status. They’re called humanitarian parolees and they must apply for more permanent status once they arrive. The agencies are under pressure to settle them by February when the military bases will close the camps. And they are trying to do it at a time when there is an affordable housing crisis.

The challenge facing Utah organizations

“Typically, when a new refugee arrival comes, we would be able to secure housing ahead of them even coming,” said Natalie El-Deiry, Executive Director of International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. “Very rarely, under normal circumstances, would we ever be putting anyone in a hotel or an Airbnb. It’s the sheer volume of people and the notice; we barely have sometimes 24-hour’s notice that somebody is coming.”

Despite the challenges, El-Deiry said the landlord association in Utah has been very responsive in trying to supply units, and they are placing Afghan evacuees in homes on average one a day. They are scattered all over the valley and some outside Salt Lake County, wherever they become available.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced in October a special fund to address the resource gaps not covered by federal dollars for resettling Afghan evacuees, including legal support, healthcare, and education needs.

“This is truly a unique and exceptional situation unlike really any other in our nation’s history,” Cox said.

State leaders say they have raised $400,000 so far to serve Afghan refugees in Utah. Some of that money has been distributed to agencies and community organizations. The resettlement agencies are using some of the money to make sure that the refugees have the phone service that they need to connect with services, find work, and communicate with family in Afghanistan – many of whom are still in danger. With new pledges coming into the fund, state leaders say they expect to reach their one-million-dollar goal.

Co-chair of the Utah Afghan Community Fund Naja Lockwood, a refugee herself, said Utahns are eager to help.

“It’s an amazing state with people who really, who understand the need for refugees — not only for food and nourishment, but also that inner nourishment of being loved or being welcomed to a community,” Lockwood said.

Your neighbor next door

Jennifer Hua of Cedar Hills in Utah County is one of those community members who really wanted to help the arrivals from Afghanistan. In late October she drove up to Salt Lake City to attend an event designed to raise support for the Hazara community.

“I went to the event to find out more about their culture and who they are and why they’re here,” Hua said. “There she met Nazifa Rajabi. “She needed a ton of help. So I’m like, okay, I found my spot.”

Hua, a member of The Church of Latter-day Saints, organized some of her neighbors and gathered some furnishings for a couple of Afghan families who had just been placed in apartments. She brought her eight-year-old daughter along, who made instant friends despite the language barrier.

“We were helping a family they have an 18-year-old who’s really good at fighting — like martial arts and gymnastics, and my daughter is into both of those things,” Hua said. “They were just doing flips and they were having conversations with Google Translate, perfectly independent from everyone else and so happy together.”

Need goes beyond “things” 

Hua said these families don’t just need stuff, they need people to teach them how to live in the US, to show them how to go to the grocery store and use the public transit system. “A few of them came to our neighborhood for Thanksgiving dinner, just to make some friends in Utah.”

On a Sunday afternoon in early December, Hua organized a Relief Society “flash service project” in partnership with Rajabi. In a parking lot outside a shopping complex in Midvale, dozens of people – all ages and from all across the valley gathered. Many of them were still wearing their Sunday best as they assembled 25 boxes of food, large bags of flour, oil, spinach, and supplies, including diapers and even a couple of sewing machines to serve the new refugees arriving in Utah.

“Almost everyone I’ve met has asked me for a sewing machine,” Hua said. “First they want a rug, and then a sewing machine.”

After a prayer, they loaded the boxes were loaded into cars. Then, people fanned out across the valley, some with volunteer translators to make the deliveries.

Serving refugees 

Among the volunteers was Dane Smith. He had already visited several Afghan families to find out what they needed and taken them on shopping trips.

“When we saw the pictures and the videos coming out of Afghanistan, we prayed to be able to help them,” Smith said, then he paused as tears sprang to his eyes. “This is like an answer to prayer for us. I know that there’s a lot of need amongst people who already live here, but the need just seems so acute with those coming out of Afghanistan. They served alongside our military men and women, and so just knowing that there’s a need present makes us want to run to them.”

Smith credits Rajabi with connecting him to the Afghan arrivals. “She lives in our neighborhood,” he said, “Little did we know… what a blessing.”

“You never know who your neighbor next door is,” added Allyson Hanks, the relief society president from the same ward.

On one visit to a refugee family of five at hotel in West Valley City, the father shook hands with the volunteers, while holding his one-year-old son who was just learning to wave. Rajabi translated for him from Dari to English.

“He’s thankful for the President that helped them evacuate Afghanistan,” she said. “Second, he’s also thankful for all the military bases that helped them through the process… and then thirdly, they’re very thankful for all of you to visit them.”

Then she laughed as she translated. “Fourthly, they’re thanking me for connecting everybody!”

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Utah residents are rushing to serve refugees arriving from Afghanistan