The ending stanza of “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus famously reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” The emblematic phrase is engraved on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty and is a nod to the United States as a welcoming refuge for immigrants.
Throughout the summer of 2021, Afghanistan fell back into the hands of the Taliban for the first time in 20 years. Although most Americans felt that leaving Afghanistan was the right decision, many also said the United States botched the military withdrawal process, which allowed for a faster-than-expected return to power by the Taliban.
The crisis explains why support for Afghan refugees has been overwhelmingly positive. Directly following Kabul’s collapse in August, a Forbes poll showed 81% of Americans supported Afghan resettlement into the U.S.
However, enthusiasm for immigration is not the norm. In September 2019, the Trump administration set a four-decade low limit of immigrants to be accepted into the U.S. at 18,000 people; the number of displaced people reached an all-time high in 2019, of 79.5 million people, as reported by the United Nations.
The policy cemented the tone set by a Republican president, but not for every predominantly Republican state, including Utah.
Prior to the Trump administration, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, then-Gov. Gary Herbert deferred from several of his Republican colleagues by welcoming Syrian refugees to Utah. The decision, in part, added to the Utah’s legacy as a refugee safe haven, due to its connection to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
“Everybody who lives in the state of Utah – be he Mormon, non-Mormon, Jew, gentile, whatever – owes a debt of obligation to those who paid so great a price for the comforts which we enjoy this day,” former church president Gordon B. Hinckley said during a dedication for the unveiling of Journey’s End, a monument honoring LDS pioneers, at This is the Place Heritage Park in 1999.
How Utah is assisting Afghan refugees
In response to the U.S. acceptance of Afghan refugees, Utah pledged to take in at least 750 people by the end of 2022. International Rescue Committee and Catholic Community Services take part in the refugee relocation process.
The U.S. government originally specified 765 refugees to be placed in Utah — about 600 for the IRC and 150 for CCS — but the total is expected to increase to 865 by the end of 2022.
As of late November, IRC executive director Natalie El-Deiry was happy with the rollout, even though it was progressing slower than expected.
“We are about 250 people in now,” she said at the time. “Dealing with a high volume of people will tend to slow the process some, but we have course-corrected where we needed to and are moving right along.”
El-Deiry joined the Salt Lake City division of IRC in 2010 and worked in a variety of positions until her promotion to executive director in 2019.
“I am proud to work with a community that is so welcoming and for an organization like IRC that is so established at this point,” she said. “We have been around for over 20 years.”
El-Deiry is most proud of IRC, and its partnership with CCS, in placing refugees in jobs that promote career advancement. However, they abide by a strict protocol to make the refugee living situation the best it can be.
“First, we make sure a home is available, which delays the process, but not by much, and then we make sure the children can go to school,” she said. “It is one of our main priorities that all children are enrolled in school, but only after their parents are vaccinated and settled.”
How circumstances differ for current refugees
Stephen LeFevre, director of strategic and foreign affairs at World Trade Center Utah, compared the current refugee relocation process to those of the past.
“What we are experiencing now with Afghans is completely different,” he said. “Typically, you don’t get refugees from the same country in such bulk.”
Lefevre added that many refugees coming from the same country at once also changes the dynamic.
“You have a community component, with so many coming from the same place, with the same culture, and religious background, that we also have an organization like the Muslim Civic League taking a large part in this process,” he said. “Due to there already being an Afghan population here and its connection to the Muslim religion, the Utah Muslim Civic League is aiding the current effort with an additional focus on the community.”
For recent refugee Mohammad Tamim Solhadost, it is still difficult to understand the circumstances that brought him and his family to Utah, when he was in Afghanistan only a few months ago.
“It’s all like a dream,” Solhadost said. “Firstly, I can’t believe it, because we are so disappointed in Kabul. I [would never] believe that one day I would arrive in the U.S. because of that situation.”
CCS provided Solhadost, his mother and sister with a home in Salt Lake City. He does not have his work visa yet, but is volunteering his time at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center as one of their translators; he speaks Dari, Pashto and English.
The CCS are not the only welcoming factor for Solhadost. He enjoys playing in a local soccer league once a week, and his teammates gave him and his family a television, as well as other gifts.
“Here, humanity is important, and because of that, we are very happy,” he said.
Leaving a tumultuous land
Solhadost explained the true danger he and his loved ones faced when they tried to leave for the airport, the first day the Taliban drove into Kabul.
“It’s unbelievable for everyone in Kabul,” he said. “You wake up one morning and everyone is running. The first day that I checked the gate [at the airport] when six people were killed; on that same day, one of ‘the animals’ attacked me with a knife. I saved myself.”
Solhadost, his mother, and sister were able to leave Kabul within the next few days, because of his brother’s working as a translator for the U.S. military, and his own relocation to Utah years prior.
Solhadost compared the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City to those surrounding Kabul City, which made him feel relaxed in his new home.
“I feel that now we are in Afghanistan, but at peace,” he said. “When we got on the airplane, I just slept. I woke up, the airplane was landing, and when the door opened the first thing I saw was the American flag.”
What Solhadost wants people to know the most about him is the humanity of his homeland.
“Our people are a very kind people,” he said. “Afghan people don’t have a lot of support, but they have a great talent at using their resources. If the U.S. government continues to support our people, then the U.S. people will be proud of our people.”
Supporting refugees at Salt Lake Community College
Salt Lake Community College, as the most diverse college in the state of Utah, serves as a source of reliance for any immigrant community to receive support. Dr. Kamal Bewar, student success coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, is a particular benefit to SLCC’s community when it comes to refugees from Middle Eastern countries.
“We talk about diversity, inclusion, and everything, but people need advocates for their own people,” Bewar said. “For example, any decision about me, without me, is not valid.”
Bewar is a refugee himself, immigrating from Kurdistan to Utah in 1993, working for the U.S. government in various positions until he became a staff member at SLCC. He is a passionate advocate for refugees and is proud to be a familiar face for them to relate to with a similar experience.
Bewar said he wants SLCC students and allies to know they can get involved in making their refugee peers feel welcome and supported.
“I call them the invisible student population, honestly, because we are always talking about Black, Asian, or Latinx student inclusion in higher education but there is nothing about refugees,” he said. “Refugees are hard to identify, but at the same time you can find that ‘invisible students’ are suffering because we do not know how to handle that population.”
Attending college as a refugee
Babiker Abdallah, a refugee from Sudan and a TRIO peer leader, is appreciative of the guidance he received from Bewar when he first attended SLCC, as well as the many opportunities he experienced in being part of the SLCC community.
“I have worked with Dr. Kamal through a club he advises, called Global Connection,” he said. “I have also been involved in the Black Student Union, the Asian Association Club, and the Pacific Islander Club. These are the resources that helped me become a better speaker. This is what a first-generation student doesn’t have access to, and this is how I crossed that gap.”
Abdallah acknowledges the difficulties he faced as a first-generation student and refugee.
“Specifically, you are trying to go to school, take care of your family, and help yourself,” he said. “I had to go through what was a priority, and not, for me to balance everything for myself.”
Abdallah, who has been in the U.S. since 2015 and speaks Arabic, Rotana, Swahili and English, says that the most significant obstacle for refugees is the culture shock.
“Over time, as you understand the culture and the language more, is when you find that you are on the right track and learn to look for the different resources that help you build yourself,” he said. “Back home, everything was on me and my parents, but here there are scholarship and club opportunities that help pay for school. I’m a student that wants to get my money back, and finding these opportunities was important.”
Abdallah was able to find a scholarship to attend Utah Valley University, where he is currently enrolled with a major in business management and a minor in digital marketing. He wants other refugees to know about one scholarship in particular that will make their college education the most worthwhile.
“I know there are a lot of refugee and immigrant students who do not know what opportunities are out there, and that’s why I want to work at SLCC, to help those students know what is available,” he said. “The ‘One Refugee Scholarship’ provided by SLCC is a six-year scholarship that is transferable to other nearby Utah schools. It is the only long-term scholarship I have ever come across, and it is a game-changer.”
As more continue to arrive in Utah, the IRC, CCS, and the Community Foundation of Utah are accepting donations and other forms of support. SLCC refugee or immigrant students can contact the Global Connections club, TRIO Programs and the Office of Multicultural Affairs for assistance and support.