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SALT LAKE CITY — As U.S. military leaders promise to evacuate Afghans who helped the war effort, Utah's Republican governor says those fleeing the Taliban takeover are welcome here.
Gov. Spencer Cox penned a letter to President Joe Biden saying he's "deeply saddened by the human tragedy" unfolding in the nation and wants to continue the state's long tradition of inviting refugees to make Utah their home.
The governor's message comes as members of Utah's Afghan community — including former interpreters for the U.S. Army — say they fear the worst for their family members and remain glued to social media pages and television news coverage.
"I recognize Utah plays no direct role in shaping U.S. diplomatic or military policy, but we have a long history of welcoming refugees from around the world and helping them restart their lives in a new country," reads the governor's letter, dated Aug. 17.
"We are eager to continue that practice," Cox continued, especially for those who helped U.S. troops, diplomats, journalists and others during the 20-year war.
The governor noted that Latter-day Saint history guides the longtime approach. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were fleeing religious persecution when they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley some 170 years ago, Cox wrote.
"Their descendants have a deep understanding of the danger and pain caused by forced migration and an appreciation for the wonderful contributions of refugees in our communities," Cox said. His letter mirrored one sent by his predecessor, former Gov. Gary Herbert, to then-President Donald Trump in October 2019 after Trump vowed to slash the number of refugees admitted to the country.
We have a long history of welcoming refugees from around the world and helping them restart their lives in a new country.
–Utah Gov. Spencer Cox
U.S. military leaders said Wednesday that American troops would work with the Taliban to allow Afghans through if they're cleared to arrive in the United States. But reports have surfaced of the militant group barring Afghans from reaching the airport.
"We intend to evacuate those who have been supporting us for years, and we are not going to leave them behind," Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday. "And we will get as many out as possible."
Utah restauranteur Shabir Baher, who left Afghanistan as a teenager when the Taliban rose to power, said he worries few Afghans will find their way to the United States or other safe destinations.
"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."
He worked for the U.S. Army supporting families of fallen soldiers before opening a restaurant, later selling the business when it got too slow in the pandemic.
Baher tries to crack jokes and cheer his Afghan friends up when they call to update him and 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.
His hometown of Jaghori prizes education, and children there walk several miles a day to take English lessons after school.
"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."
It's not clear how many refugees the State Department will refer to Utah or how soon they may arrive, said Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services at Catholic Community Services, one of two refugee resettlement agencies in the state.
But Utah will be ready for them, Batar said. The groups are already at work finding housing options in Utah's tight rental market and secure donations, he said.
"Any landlords out there that have housing — apartment or house that they want to rent — please let us know," Batar said.
Utah has resettled people from Afghanistan for a long time, Batar noted, estimating several thousand Afghans call the state home.