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How Utah is helping Afghan refugees — and where gaps remain

Gov. Spencer Cox meets with Deseret News editorial
board in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.

Gov. Spencer Cox meets with Deseret News editorial board in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Over 550 Afghans now call Utah home in the wake of the Taliban taking control of the country's capital, Kabul, in August.

Roughly 300 more are expected to be resettled in the Beehive State. For now, they're housed on military bases, waiting for a green light from the various government agencies charged with vetting and processing applications.

When they arrive in Utah, the red tape is not yet behind them. They need housing, a social security card, a driver's license, health insurance and other benefits. Some need to enroll children in public school or daycare.

These steps are difficult without a firm grasp on the English language, and many will need to sign up for classes. They need to apply for a job, but not before they first gain work authorization. There are humanitarian parolees who need to finalize their visa, which requires an immigration attorney. There are college students who will need to see if their credits will transfer to a school in Utah. Others were health care professionals, or worked a skilled trade, and will see if their certifications are still valid in the U.S. (often, they aren't).

Almost all of them came via the Kabul airport, where bombings, stampedes and shootouts happened, leaving many with lasting trauma.

"We all saw those images and how disturbing it was, and some of those people we saw in those images are here in Utah right now," Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Tuesday during a meeting with the Deseret News/KSL editorial boards, where he gave an update on the state's Afghan Community Fund.

How Utah's fund is helping Afghan refugees

Designed to support medical, food, household, legal, educational and other community needs for newcomers, the Afghan Community Fund has raised over $1.1 million in donations since Cox unveiled it on Oct. 19.

The money is then allocated to refugee support agencies like the International Rescue Committee or Catholic Community Services, which already helps newcomers with the aforementioned tasks. With the community fund, they'll have deeper pockets to deal with what is the largest influx in refugees since former President Donald Trump took office.

"We were leading the nation when it comes to refugee resettlement, and then the tap just got shut off for about four years," Cox said. "So (resettlement agencies) had to ramp up very quickly, and they're helping a lot of people in a short amount of time. There have been some struggles there, and we're trying to provide them the resources to work through that."

A few months in, the fund is mainly being directed toward four key areas: propping up the existing Afghan community, supporting youth services, basic needs including the cost of a phone or computer, and legal support.

The fund is also used for emergencies and can help pay for things like funerals or hospital bills.

What does Utah's Afghan community need?

The Deseret News has spoken with over a dozen Afghan refugees in the last month, a majority of them recent arrivals. When asked what the main issues facing their community are, and where they need support, most focus on the same thing: their family stuck in Afghanistan.

Many of the recently evacuated Afghans still have family in their home country, currently in hiding, afraid that their U.S. ties will put them in danger.

Some refugees say they aren't sleeping well due to anxiety or because they routinely stay up late to talk with their family in Afghanistan, which has almost a 12 hour time difference.

"Until midnight, I am just walking," says Abdul, who asked to withhold his last name for the safety of his wife, who is still in Kabul. "Even if I'm super tired, I cannot."

For some, including Abdul, the anxiety is so bad they have trouble eating.

Cox acknowledged that Utah's role in helping families escape Afghanistan is limited.

"But what we can do — and this is part of the purpose of the fund — is help with those legal costs, because there is a legal process to try to get them out of that country," Cox said. "So, through this legal clinic ... we give them some hope that at least there's a process, and we're trying to help them through that process."

The other part, Cox said, is "to provide them the counseling services that they need, for those that need mental health counseling."

Others express frustration that they cannot work the same job in the U.S. that they had in Afghanistan because they lack the proper certifications.

Take the Kakaie family, for example — Azim, who was the first Afghan refugee to be resettled in the state, worked as an air traffic controller in Kabul and played an integral role in one of the largest air evacuations in history. But in the U.S., he needs different certifications before he can find work at an airport.

Shazia Kakaie, left, and her husband, Azim Kakaie,
stand during the national anthem before a soccer match between Real
Salt Lake and Portland at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday,
Nov. 3, 2021.
Shazia Kakaie, left, and her husband, Azim Kakaie, stand during the national anthem before a soccer match between Real Salt Lake and Portland at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. (Photo: Deseret News)

His brother, Wali, was a dentist in Kabul with his own practice. He wants to continue practicing medicine, but can't before he completes years of schooling and passes the board exam.

Neither faults the system.

"I think it's good, because in the U.S. they have different issues and different technology," Wali Kakaie told the Deseret News weeks ago. But if they had the time and money, they would be in school right now, a sentiment shared by most Afghans who spoke with the Deseret News.

"Right now, there's some funding that could potentially support that," said Asha Parekh, director of Utah's Refugee Services Office. "But a big emphasis for us in the Refugee Services Office is employment. ... A lot of what we have been doing through the refugee center in the last five years is really build some different training opportunities for refugees."

Despite the focus on employment, getting work authorization has proven to be a sluggish process for many Afghans, largely due to the volume of humanitarian parolees — people who likely meet the qualifications for a special immigrant visa, but the U.S. Embassy did not have time to process their paperwork during the chaotic evacuation of Kabul.

The U.S. usually processes around 2,000 humanitarian parole applications annually. They've processed over 30,000 in 2021, according to Axios.

"That influx has been so massive that the work authorizations are taking additional time. So (Department of Workforce Services) has ways to aid in that effort, provide letters of recommendation. But the work authorization from the federal government is a big problem," said Stephen LeFevre with the World Trade Center Utah.

Finding long-term volunteers has also been difficult, LeFevre said.

"A lot of people want to bring a scout troop, or something, in for a day," he said. "But they need someone who can assist in the case work, which is more long term."

Unsurprisingly, housing is another difficult aspect of the resettlement process. LeFevre called it a "bottleneck." But the state has been working with landlords to grant short-term leases to refugees who lack the employment records and credit history often required to sign a lease.

The International Rescue Committee has taken in 98 separate cases totaling 338 Afghans. Of those, 113 are in long-term housing.

Meanwhile, Catholic Community Services has taken in 87 cases totaling 221 Afghans — 214 of them are in long-term housing.

"We're well on our way to getting people there," Cox said.

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Kyle Dunphey

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