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The first Afghan refugee has arrived in Salt Lake City

Azim Kakaie, right, is the first special immigrant visa holder from Afghanistan to arrive at the Salt Lake City International Airport. He is pictured with his case manager, Abakar. (Catholic Community Services Utah)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's first special immigrant visa holder from Afghanistan arrived at the Salt Lake City International Airport late Wednesday evening.

The man was identified by Catholic Community Services as Azim Kakaie, an air traffic controller at the Kabul airport since 2010. During that time, he worked with NATO and the U.S. military, the agency said.

Kakaie was working at the airport the day the Taliban arrived in the capital city, and continued to work as the chaos unfolded, said Kearstin Cantrell, marketing manager at the Catholic Community Services of Utah.

The next day, air traffic control was handed over to the U.S. military and Kakaie and his colleagues were evacuated shortly after. However his wife, mother-in-law and brother were still in Kabul.

"It was a really hard decision for him," Cantrell told the Deseret News. "Either leave them and hope that they make it as well and he could help them in the future, or try to go get them and possibly not make it back to the airport at all."

Three days later, Kakaie's wife, mother-in-law and brother were able to make it to the airport and successfully evacuated — just 30 minutes before a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport claimed the lives of over 180 people, including 13 U.S. service members, a Marine from Utah among them.

Kakaie was initially flown to Qatar, where Cantrell said he helped the State Department with family reunification efforts before traveling to Washington D.C. Three days later, he arrived in Salt Lake City.

Cantrell said Kakaie's family was safely flown to Germany, although she wasn't sure when they would be reunited.

Utah is expected to see several hundred recently evacuated refugees from Afghanistan in the coming weeks as the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security process what is likely a mountain of visa applications. Salt Lake City was recently named one of 19 cities where Afghan refugees can choose to be resettled.

The State Department estimates roughly 123,000 people, including 6,000 U.S. citizens, were evacuated from the Kabul airport.

"We're expecting to see more families start to arrive in the next three to six weeks or so, so right now we're gearing up to welcome (them)," said Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.

"These people are fleeing for their lives," said Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for the Catholic Community Services of Utah. "These people that we are bringing here from Afghanistan are the people that stood side by side with U.S. forces who were fighting in Afghanistan. They put their lives at risk helping our forces, and made their job easier."

Cantrell said Kakaie was tired, but in good spirits.

"He's tired from travel, and lots of paperwork," she said. "But he is really, really hopeful."

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Kyle Dunphey


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