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Are Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban regime headed to Utah?

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at a naturalization ceremony for 14 refugees at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on June 15, 2021.
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at a naturalization ceremony for 14 refugees at the Capitol during World Refugee Week in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Refugees from the chaos in Afghanistan could eventually find their way to Utah.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Refugees from the chaos in Afghanistan could eventually find their way to Utah.

Catholic Community Services, one of two refugee resettlement agencies in the state, is preparing for the arrival of Afghan civilians in the next few weeks.

Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services, said he expects the State Department to refer some cases to Utah, but he doesn’t know when they would get here, estimating it could be the end of August or beginning of September.

“We are standing really ready to receive any refugee that is allowed to come our way,” he said. “We have the capacity. We have the staff. We have the community.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox tweeted Monday that “Utah stands ready to welcome refugees from Afghanistan, especially those who valiantly helped our troops over the past 20 years.”

Tuesday evening, Cox announced on Twitter he had sent a letter to President Joe Biden expressing Utah’s desire to help those Afghans now fleeing their homes.

“Utah was settled by refugees fleeing religious persecution. We understand the pain caused by forced migration and appreciate the contributions of refugees in our communities,” Cox tweeted.

Utah restauranteur Shabir Baher, 46, welcomed the sentiment but questioned how many Afghans will manage to make their way to the United States or other safe destinations, and how quickly. He said friends and family in his home country are reporting the Taliban is knocking on doors to find those who worked for the U.S. and Afghan governments.

“I’m grieving for my friends, I’m grieving for my family, even the U.S. soldiers, to be honest with you,” he said. “I am a U.S. citizen. I love those people and this is my country.”

Baher tries to crack jokes and cheer his Afghan friends up when they call him, locked in their homes, to pass the time. But he’s so distraught, he speaks English instead of his native Farsi and jumbles the two when he tries to correct himself.

As the country’s government collapsed over the weekend amid the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Taliban seized the capital city of Kabul, leading to throngs of Afghans civilians desperately trying to leave. Some clung to airplanes, including a U.S. Air Force cargo jet, as they taxied the runway at the airport Monday.

The first wave of Afghan evacuees arrived at Fort Lee in Virginia last week. The Biden administration has evacuated about 2,000 Afghan interpreters and others who helped the U.S. military. They and their families are being resettled under a special visa program.

As many as 22,000 Afghanistan refugees could end up in the U.S., officials said Monday. The Pentagon also identified Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin as additional evacuation sites.

On Sunday, an Air Force C-17 safely evacuated some 640 Afghans from Kabul, which was among the highest number of people ever carried in such an aircraft. The plane is designed to carry 134 soldiers.

Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, a former Air Force pilot, said the pilots should be awarded the Air Medal for their bravery.

“I want to call that crew and thank them,” he said Tuesday on KSL Newsradio’s “Dave and Dujanovic Show.”

The pilots thought they might have had as many as 800 passengers, Stewart said. They showed great courage and “enormous airmanship and judgement” in making the decision to save those people “in a very, very dark and just catastrophic environment,” he said.

“We remain committed to completing this drawdown in a safe and orderly way, and to doing what we can to get as many of our American citizens out as well as many of those interpreters and translators,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told MSNBC on Tuesday.

“We’re going to work really hard in the coming weeks to get as many of them out of the country as we can.”

Batar, who has worked in refugee services in Utah for more than 25 years, said what happened at the Kabul airport reminded him of the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War when the last American helicopter took off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy.

“I think the situation is very dire right now and there’s a lot of people’s lives at risk. We need to do whatever we can to save as many lives and figure out how we can help, especially those people who are left behind. We don’t know what’s going to happen to them,” he said.

“We are praying for them,” Batar said. “May God protect them.”

Utah has resettled people from Afghanistan for a long time, Batar said, estimating several thousand Afghans live in the state.

Stewart blames the “absolute failure” of the military, intelligence and the Biden administration for the scene unfolding in Afghanistan. He has called for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to resign.

“I don’t know how anyone can defend what’s being revealed before us over the last few days,” he said.

Utah Reps. Burgess Owens and Blake Moore joined 36 freshmen House Republicans in a letter Tuesday to the president denouncing his administration’s “catastrophic” failures in Afghanistan. They called on the president to “urgently” prioritize security of the airfield and the evacuation of American citizens and Afghans who served alongside U.S. forces

“We must safely and expeditiously get Americans and our Afghan partners out of harm’s way. Leaving Afghan allies behind would almost certainly seal their fate and would have harmful and lasting repercussions for our nation that cannot be overlooked,” according to the letter.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also weighed in on the situation, saying after two decades of heroism from American troops, “all is being undone in Afghanistan.”

“While it has long been the right policy to navigate a withdrawal from our nation’s longest war, the lack of adequate planning, security, and management has placed brave Americans and others at risk,” he tweeted. “I pray for the safety of those Americans still in harm’s way, and I will continue to hold President Biden to account for this historic failure.”

Baher left Afghanistan as the Taliban rose to power and arrived in the U.S. in 2001 as a refugee. He earned a second bachelor’s degree and worked for the U.S. Army supporting families of fallen soldiers before opening a restaurant. Baher sold his pizzeria in the pandemic when business got too slow.

His hometown of Jaghori prizes education, and his nephew there walks several miles a day to take English lessons after school. But Baher believes the boy and his schoolmates won’t be able to continue doing so.

“They were supposed to be the future of Afghanistan, the pride of Afghanistan,” he said. “By collapsing the government when the Taliban came, I believe those desires and ambitions will be gone.”

Contributing: Annie Knox