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One month in, Utah ‘feels like home’ for state’s first Afghan refugee

Gov. Spencer Cox announces Afghan Community Fund to support the 765 refugees truckling into Utah

Azim Kakaie serves lunch to his flatmate, Hussain Yaqobi, in the living room of their home in Salt Lake City.
Azim Kakaie, front, serves lunch to his flatmate, Hussain Yaqobi, in the living room of their home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Kakaie, who worked as an air traffic controller at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and arrived in Utah on Sept. 1.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Azim Kakaie got his wish.

Kakaie, the first Afghan refugee to arrive in Utah in the wake of the evacuation of Kabul, told the Deseret News three days after landing in the Beehive State that his first order of business was to meet the family of Marine Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover, who was killed in a suicide bombing at the same gate his family was ushered through just 30 minutes earlier.

The blast killed 180 people, including 13 U.S. service members. That day, Kakaie’s wife, brother, mother-in-law and brother-in-law boarded a plane for Germany.

On Sept. 18, less than a month after Hoover was killed, Kakaie accepted an invitation to meet Hoover’s family at a ceremony at Hillcrest High School, where the Marine had graduated.

“It was somehow a difficult time and a good time,” said Kakaie. “I had the opportunity to tell them their boy sacrificed his life for humanity. I couldn't believe I got the opportunity.”

Kakaie, a 34-year-old former air traffic controller who credits Hoover and the rest of the Marines at the gate for saving his family, was able to shake hands with members of Hoover’s family and tell them what he told several Utah reporters — that Hoover and the 12 others killed are “heroes.”

“I was really emotional when I saw his family there. Especially his sister, fiancé, his father,” Kakaie said. “Basically, we cried a lot.”

Azim Kakaie takes out groceries from his friend’s car at his home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Kakaie, who worked as an air traffic controller at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and arrived in Utah on Sept. 1.
Azim Kakaie takes out groceries from his friend’s car at his home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Kakaie, who worked as an air traffic controller at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and arrived in Utah on Sept. 1.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Utah’s role in the resettlement process

Utah is gearing up to resettle 765 Afghan refugees who escaped the country as the Taliban took the capital city, Kabul, by storm in August. Roughly 130,000 people were airlifted out in the largest mass evacuation in U.S. history. According to The Associated Press, 50,000 will be resettled in the U.S.

On Aug. 17, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox penned a letter to President Joe Biden, telling the administration that the state “stands ready to welcome refugees from Afghanistan.”

On Tuesday, Cox announced the Utah Afghan Community Fund, a partnership between the state, private sector, the International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services.

Cox called the fund an “opportunity for businesses and individuals to donate what they can and know their money will go directly to helping those Afghans that are resettling in Utah.”

The fund is aimed at supporting medical, food, household, legal, educational and other community needs for the newcomers where public funding falls short. Naja Lockwood, co-chairwoman of the fund, said $275,000 is already available.

“They’re coming to build a new life, and we have the opportunity to help them create a bright, safe and vibrant future,” Cox said Tuesday.

“He is a nice guy, he has lots of energy,” Kakaie said of the governor, who he met during an event at Catholic Community Services.

“For the refugee people that he opened his arms to welcome ... they really appreciate that, it means a lot that he will give us an opportunity to come here and make Utah home.”

Kearstin Cantrell, marketing manager at the Catholic Community Services, says the agency has received 92 Afghan clients in October, totaling 94 since the evacuation.

Of the 765 headed for Utah, between 150 to 250 will be taken in by Catholic Community Services. The International Rescue Committee will manage the rest of the case.

Some semblance of a normal life

Kakaie’s family is still in Indiana. After being evacuated from Kabul, they were flown to Germany for 10 days, clearing several background checks before being flown to Indiana.

They are some of the roughly 6,400 Afghan refugees currently being held at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, according to Fox 59.

Kakaie talks to his family every day. He had just got off the phone with his wife, Shazia, the day he met with the Deseret News at the Catholic Community Services Utah office. All that lies between him and Shazia is a medical checkup, a few interviews with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and a flight from Indiana to Salt Lake City. He is hoping they arrive in Utah in a week.

Kakaie witnessed firsthand the chaos at the Kabul airport that shocked the world. And as an air traffic controller, he played an integral role in the evacuation of the city, until the U.S. military stepped in to take control.

He was flown to Qatar, where he worked as a translator for U.S. forces, helping reunite the scores of families being held on a military base. Kakaie described a scene there almost as chaotic as the airport. Then, he boarded a plane for Washington, D.C., and three days later, Utah.

Now, much to Kakaie’s delight, life has slowed down considerably.

He goes to the gym almost every day. He does chores around the apartment where he is staying. He studies, whether for his driving test or the Microsoft Excel program. He wants to buy tickets to a Real Salt Lake game soon.

Azim Kakaie puts on his workout gloves before his weekly workout session at his home’s gym in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Kakaie, who worked as an air traffic controller at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and arrived in Utah on Sept. 1.
Azim Kakaie puts on his workout gloves before his weekly workout session at his home’s gym in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Kakaie, who worked as an air traffic controller at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and arrived in Utah on Sept. 1.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

His special immigrant visa allows him to apply for a job, and he interviewed with the International Rescue Committee looking to work as a translator. “I want to do my part,” he says.

Settling in

For now he helps out with Catholic Community Services where he can. He spent much of a recent morning translating over the phone for an Afghan family that had recently arrived at the airport.

He lives in South Salt Lake with his cousin and a childhood friend, who in September took him on a drive up one of the Cottonwood canyons, though he can’t remember which one.

As soon as he gets an arrival date for his family, he will begin looking for an apartment with help from Catholic Community Services. Shazia, her mother and brother, Kakaie and his brother will all live together.

Kakaie knows of roughly 100 Afghan families living along the Wasatch Front, and his goal is to meet with as many as he can.

“I know everybody's busy, but we meet when we can. If I get the chance, I visit them,” he said. “Everybody is very supportive. The whole environment, all the people. They are very friendly.”

He has a pretty firm grasp on Salt Lake City’s grid system, although he admits at first the numbered streets had him confused.

He is waiting to see if the credits earned from a university in Kabul, where he and Shazia were both in their seventh semester of a bachelor in business administration program, will transfer to a college in Utah.

If possible, he wants to become certified as an air traffic controller in the U.S.

And on Monday, in what some might consider a symbolic “welcome to America” formality, he made his first trip to the Utah Department of Motor Vehicles.

“It was easy, it was nice. No problem,” he said.

Kakaie speaks with a nonchalance that is markedly different from his first interview with the Deseret News nearly a month ago.

Things that might stress the average American out — applying for a job, being unable to transfer college credits, navigating a new city or being constantly burdened with paperwork — don’t bother him at all.

It’s almost as if he enjoys the red tape. “That’s the system,” he says with a grin.

Azim Kakaie checks on the rice as he prepares for lunch at his home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Kakaie, who worked as an air traffic controller at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and arrived in Utah on Sept. 1.
Azim Kakaie checks on the rice as he prepares for lunch at his home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Kakaie, who worked as an air traffic controller at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and arrived in Utah on Sept. 1.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Missing family in Afghanistan

Kakaie describes his life as “perfect,” with one exception — he still has family in Afghanistan.

The situation in his home country is tense. Kakaie says he received an email from the U.S. State Department warning that the families of those who helped U.S. and NATO forces are being targeted by the Taliban.

“All those people that had a family member that were assisting and helping the United States, if those family members are still in Afghanistan, they’re in danger,” he said.

To make matters worse, Kakaie is a member of the Hazara minority, who have been subjected to centuries of religious discrimination. Numerous reports suggest Hazara families are being persecuted by the Taliban.

He talks with his family a few times a week, although he says he is careful not to call them too much, worried it might look suspicious. He spoke with them Tuesday night, and every time they talk, he reminds them to not leave the house unless they need groceries.

“They’re fine, they just stay at home. I tell them, ‘Don’t go travel too much.’”

When asked if they want to leave the country, Kakaie doesn’t mince words.

“Of course! But it is very hard, and even with the neighboring countries, there is no passport, there is no visa (for them).”

Kakaie doesn’t think he will ever return to Afghanistan — it’s unfathomable, he says, especially when he turns on the news and sees images of the Taliban parading around the city he called home two months ago.

He misses his family, he misses his house, he misses his car, which he is “pretty sure the Taliban, they are riding in it now.” But doesn’t necessarily miss his country. Utah’s mountains and climate remind him of his home village in central Afghanistan. “It feels like home to me already,” he says.

Azim Kakaie, who is waiting to be reunited with family, is silhouetted against the window of the living room where he currently resides in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Kakaie, who worked as an air traffic controller at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and arrived in Utah on Sept. 1.
Azim Kakaie, who is waiting to be reunited with family, is silhouetted against the window of the living room where he currently resides in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Kakaie, who worked as an air traffic controller at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover and arrived in Utah on Sept. 1.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News