Cox calls for long-term housing as Utah enters 2nd phase to help Afghan refugees

With most of the more than 900 Afghan refugees expected to resettle in Utah having now arrived, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Wednesday that efforts are shifting toward the second phase of education, training and employment.

State leaders, Utah resettlement agencies and the Refugee Services Office have partnered as efforts are moving to integrate Afghans and their families into the workforce and community. The second phase includes homework help, mentorship programs through the Utah Refugee Center, English language education and technology courses.

"We are helping families ensure they have what they need for their children to be successful in our schools and communities," Cox said. "We recognize the incredible talents, abilities, and life experiences these Afghans bring to our workforce. They'll be wonderful additions and will be filing much-needed job vacancies. With the lowest unemployment in the country, we desperately need them."

Cox pointed to Ahmad Naweed Shirzad, a newly arrived Afghan arrival, as one of many with skill sets that will come to benefit Utah.

Shirzad spoke of his experience in the resettlement process and shared his hopes for the future. Shirzad, an entertainment producer, said he was creating a documentary in provinces near Kabul when the Taliban began to take over. Shirzad and his team fled toward Kabul and were attacked by members of the Taliban.

After he boarded a U.S. military plane leaving Kabul he spent time in Fort Knox with other refugees, before settling in Utah.

"I would like to thank the government of the United States of America and the state of Utah in particular. I felt very safe here and I found Utah a symbol of humanity, democracy, and freedom by all means," Shirzad said.

Many industries across the state have been struggling with worker shortages. Recent COVID-19 surges across communities have led to increased vacancies that have been difficult to fill amid Utah's low unemployment rate and shortages. With the proper training and support, Afghan refugees can fill the gaps, Cox said.

"We're reaching out to the private sector as well. We know where we have shortages, we know where we have job openings. It's trying to match the job skills that they have with the job opportunities that they want and how we bridge that gap with training," he said. "There are limitless opportunities right now. Every single industry in Utah has shortages, so we'll find a way to match those."

Part of the training will be supplemented with funds from the Utah Afghan Community Fund, he added. The fund raised approximately $1 million and has already helped purchase laptops, cellphones and legal support.

Recently arrived Afghans accept applause and a standing ovation from members of the House of Representatives during the kickoff for Afghan Day on the Hill at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Recently arrived Afghans accept applause and a standing ovation from members of the House of Representatives during the kickoff for Afghan Day on the Hill at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The $1 million donated to the Utah Afghan Community is just one part of the community's response to the emergency evacuation and resettlement of Afghan refugees. State legislators have introduced several bills meant to support Afghans during the resettlement process.

Those bills include:

  • HB130, which allows the Driver License Division to begin administering certain exams in languages other than English and allow a translator for certain driver's license examinations.
  • HB163, which adds humanitarian parolees to a list of groups allowed to use an interpreter or provides an option for translation when obtaining a driver's license.
  • HB230, which amends rules and requirements regarding enrollment for immigrant or refugee students. Among those amendments are exceptions for students who are unable to produce a birth certificate or a certificate that does not accurately reflect the student's age, conditional enrollment on a student's complete immunization record and previous transcripts.

"Our hope for our Afghan friends is the same for all Utahns, to build a happy and successful life and for them to become active and engaged members of their community. We are grateful for the Legislature's willingness to take on issues impacting not only Afghan arrivals, but also refugees coming to the state," Cox said.

Cox noted that the bills, if passed, will help expand options for employment and meet general transportation needs for Afghan arrivals.

While the initial phase is complete and many challenges have been met in resettlement, housing still persists as an issue. The struggle to secure long-term housing has been a persistent problem for many, not only in the state but across the country, Cox said.

"The housing piece was probably the piece that concerned me the most and is still concerning just because we have a housing shortage anyway — not just in our state but across the United States. So making sure we can find permanent housing for these refugees remains a very high priority. We're still some short and that's where we can use some help," Cox said.

To meet the needs of the remaining 220 refugees who do not have long-term housing, the governor is turning to Utahns for help. An additional 50 units need to be located to meet the needs as more people arrive. The initial estimate for Afghan arrivals increased to over 900 due to the number of people arriving in groups and those who made their way to Utah on their own.

Madina Emami, 2, watches people in attendance at the kickoff for Afghan Day on the Hill at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Madina Emami, 2, watches people in attendance at the kickoff for Afghan Day on the Hill at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

"I would be lying if I said I didn't lose any sleep because I did lose some sleep over this one," Cox said of the resettlement process. "It was a very big number and I have all the faith in the world in our resettlement agencies — as well as our teams at the government level that were working with those resettlement agencies. But even they knew this was an enormous task."

The Cox administration urged anyone with available housing to send a message to refugeehousing@utah.gov.