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Race, Religion & Social Justice

Afghan Resettlement Efforts Are Ready To Go In Utah. The Hard Part Is Getting Refugees Here.

Sign on a window saying "Refugees Welcome"
Stephen Barnes
/
iStockphoto
College student Obaid Barakzai is trying to raise money to help his family get out of Afghanistan and resettle in Utah. He grew up in Kabul and has seen the horrors of war firsthand.

College student Obaid Barakzai is running on hope right now. He’s from Afghanistan and has been studying in Utah since 2016, first at the American International School in Murray and now at Westminster College.

He said after the situation in Afghanistan escalated to frightening proportions in August, he’s been in a constant state of panic for his family back home.

His childhood home was damaged in the recent bombing outside the Kabul airport, though thankfully his family members only suffered minor injuries. Still, he’s worried for their safety and limited by what he can do to help thousands of miles away.

“I'm going through and trying to exhaust every option, every avenue, every contact that I get,” he said. “It's kind of like a chain. You start with friends or social media. You hear about these resources and donations and organizations, potential contacts. Not many of them [respond] unfortunately, because either they are really overwhelmed.”

A photo of Obaid as a young boy.
Obaid as a 9-year-old living in Kabul, Afghanistan.

He said he’s called and emailed elected officials and resettlement agencies and drafted a letter to U.S. Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Mike Lee, R-Utah.

Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the International Rescue Committee Salt Lake City, said she’s heard many Afghans in Utah express the kind of fear and uncertainty as Barakzai.

This week, the first refugee from Afghanistan arrived in Utah. An estimated 500-600 more are on the way, El-Deiry said. But the challenge for resettlement agencies like hers is they don’t have much influence on the immigration process. Many people’s applications have been halted due to the unrest.

Despite housing prices reaching record levels in Utah, the U.S. Department of State identified Salt Lake City as one of 19 areas with a “reasonable cost of living” for refugees to resettle. El-Deiry said the housing crisis here does impact resettlement efforts, requiring them to pay more for the housing options that are available. But she said there are many landlords, property management companies and individual homeowners who are willing to rent to refugees on an ongoing basis.

“Historically, Utah has welcomed over 1,000 refugees on an annual basis,” she said. “So we do have capacity and we have the infrastructure and support systems to be able to support these families, including accessing affordable housing.”

She said while people have been generous and offered their homes to refugee families, the IRC typically tries to find private housing for them, which are often more permanent solutions and allow families to better establish roots in a community. But given the number of refugees that may be coming, she said housing families in other peoples’ homes may be more of a necessity in the coming months.

In the meantime, Barakzai wants to first make sure his family can leave Afghanistan. He’s trying to raise money for immigration fees and initial living expenses for his family and said he also appreciates efforts to raise awareness of his and other families’ situations on social media.

El-Deiry said one of the first things people can do to help is to be welcoming to refugees.

“A warm smile and [saying] ‘I'm glad you're here’ goes a long way to our neighbors,” she said.

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