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How Utahns are filling the gaps supporting Afghan refugees

Volunteer Dane Smith, right, visits with a newly arrived Afghan family temporarily living in a hotel in West Valley City on Wednesday, Dec.1, 2021.
Volunteer Dane Smith, right, visits with a newly arrived Afghan family temporarily living in a hotel in West Valley City on Wednesday, Dec.1, 2021.
Josh Tilton, KSL Podcasts

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 family crossed the border into Pakistan during the civil war in the late ’90s. “We escaped with nothing,” she said.

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 City, 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 were there, 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.” They were invited to a Persian New Year’s party in spring, and met people who ended up being long-term mentors in their lives. They tutored them, helped them with school, and they also showed them Utah’s parks and taught them how to ski.

“We were able to embrace the American life,” she said. “We didn’t get this help through the 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. “I wanted to re-create that whole process with these new refugees,” she said. “The help that I received — these families deserve, too. So that’s my mission.”

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.

Yaser, 9, 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 on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
Yaser, 9, 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 on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
Josh Tilton, KSL Podcasts

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 takeover. The 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 refugee policies, the ramp to prepare for them 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. Many of them are 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.

“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 the 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, health care 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, and 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 $1 million goal.

Naja Lockwood, co-chairwoman of the Utah Afghan Community Fund, 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.

Helping new neighbors

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 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, ‘OK, I found my spot.’”

Hua, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ 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 8-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.”

Hua said these families don’t just need stuff, they need people to teach them how to live in the U.S., 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.”

Jennifer Hua address a group of volunteers in a shopping center parking lot in Midvale on Sunday Dec. 5, 2021, as they pack boxes with supplies to deliver to newly arrived Afghan families.
Jennifer Hua address a group of volunteers in a shopping center parking lot in Midvale on Sunday Dec. 5, 2021, as they pack boxes with supplies to deliver to newly arrived Afghan families.
Ryan Meeks, KSL Podcasts

On a Sunday afternoon in early December, Hua organized a Relief Society “flash service project” in partnership with Rajabi. In a parking lot outside of 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.

“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, the boxes were loaded into cars and people fanned out across the valley, some with volunteer translators to make the deliveries.

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 Latter-day Saint ward.

On one visit to a refugee family of five at a hotel in West Valley City, the father shook hands with the volunteers while holding his 1-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!”