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‘Stranger Becomes Neighbor’: Separated from parents, Afghan refugees land in Utah in the dark

Aug 15, 2023, 2:15 PM

Afghan refugees in Utah await help from various services....

July 27, 2023: Afghan refugees wait for a friend to arrive at their Salt Lake City, Utah, apartment. Their identities are not shows to protect them from the Taliban. (Jeff Allred, Deseret News)

(Jeff Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — The stranger escorted three Afghan refugees into a dark, cold Utah apartment in a country they only knew through television shows. For 16-year-old Baran, her 31-year-old sister, and their 4-year-old niece, it did not feel like the refuge they imagined as they fought their way through desperate crowds at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August of 2021.

“The first night that we came to Utah, it was a very horrible situation,” said Baran, who doesn’t use her real name in an effort to protect her family in Afghanistan. “There was no power, no heat and this apartment was dark, completely dark.”

The Afghan refugees asked the Utah resettlement agent to come back the next day. Struggling to meet the demands of helping to resettle hundreds of Afghan evacuees in Utah, the caseworker told them he’d return the following week. Then he left, closing the door on the dark room.

Before escaping Afghanistan, they had never spent a night without their family. In the chaotic crowds at the airport in Kabul, they were separated from their parents who never made it through the gates. They never even got a chance to say goodbye. That night, they huddled under donated blankets in a strange land without a friend.

“If we live here with this kind of situation, I want to come back to Afghanistan,” Baran’s sister told her. They were alone, scared, and so she wondered if it might be better to risk living with the Taliban. At least their family would be together.

It was not the kind of warm welcome that Utah Gov. Spencer Cox probably envisioned when he wrote to President Joe Biden offering Utah as a safe haven for Afghan refugees.

“I’m proud of our state’s heritage, which has shaped our willingness to embrace those in need,” he wrote in an editorial, referring to ancestors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who came to Utah because of religious persecution. “Within minutes of my writing to the president, letters, calls and notes from mayors, business leaders and fellow Utahns from all walks of life began flooding in, expressing support and offering to help.”

It wasn’t just Utah. Across the country, there was widespread support for Afghan evacuees. In a poll shortly after the evacuation, seven out of 10 Americans said they supported resettling Afghans who worked with the U.S. government or military.

America promised to be a welcoming nation for our Afghan allies, but how well did we deliver on that promise? Over the course of a two-year investigation, a new podcast from KSL, “Stranger Becomes Neighbor,” follows the experience of Afghan arrivals and the people who try to help them. What happens for Baran and thousands of others like her depends in part on their neighbors.

But what can one person do in the face of an international disaster decades in the making?

‘This is a big challenge’

About 80,000 Afghan refugees arrived in a very short time frame — the biggest war-time influx the U.S. had seen since the fall of Saigon. And they came during a pandemic, a severe shortage of affordable housing and at a time when the resettlement agencies had been reduced to almost nothing. By the end of President Donald Trump’s term, refugee admissions were slashed to 15,000, from 85,000 in the last year of the previous administration. With the reduced number of refugees coming to the U.S., resettlement organizations were decimated, staff laid off and offices closed.

“The whole program, basically, was shut down,” said Aden Batar of Catholic Community Services. “The infrastructure of the program was destroyed, pretty much.”

The two main resettlement agencies in Utah — Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee — were left with a handful of staff to handle hundreds of expected arrivals. Agencies across the country were just starting to rebuild when Kabul fell, and Afghans started arriving in our communities.

“This is a big challenge,” Batar said. “When the families are arriving they need a lot of support. These folks need friends in order for them to be successfully integrated into our community.”

Neighbors to the rescue for Afghan refugees in Utah

Given the challenging situation, case workers could not spend as much time as they normally would have with people like 16-year-old Baran and her family. So the experience of the new arrivals often depended on volunteers and neighbors to fill in the gaps.

About a month after Baran, her sister and niece arrived in Salt Lake City to that cold, dark apartment, they met a neighbor named Kerry Wickman, who lived two and half blocks away. Wickman heard about the family in her neighborhood from a volunteer who had been tracking down the new arrivals to see if their needs were being met.

“I met them, fell in love with them instantly,” Wickman said.

Wickman, who is a social worker and a Relief Society president in her Latter-day Saint ward, decided to do what overtaxed agencies couldn’t do. She took Baran to get enrolled in the local public high school, helped the older sister get a job at a daycare center, drove them to appointments, and collected money for things they need in the U.S. and to send home for their family back in Afghanistan.

“They’re like family, so I just do the things I would do for my family,” Wickman said. “They fill my heart every day I’m with them. I come home and my husband says, ‘You’re glowing.'”

“If Kerry was not here, we couldn’t do anything,” Baran said. “She’s our mom, both my mom and my best friend.”

July 27, 2023: Neighbor Kerry Wickman is greeted by a five-year-old Afghan refugee living in Utah without her parents. (Jeff Allred, Deseret News)

It was not clear what Wickman could do, though, about the fact that their 4-year-old niece was here without her parents. When an airplane flew over their apartment in Salt Lake City, the young girl mistakenly believed her parents were finally coming for her.

“My mom and my dad are coming home,” she told her aunts. “Let’s go to the airport.”

“I think that she — not understanding what happened — believes that they abandoned her,” Wickman said. “I don’t know how you rectify this damage until this family is reunited again.”

Meanwhile, their family back in Afghanistan fled their home because they were afraid of what would happen if the Taliban found them. Baran and her sister worried about their father who had trouble breathing after contracting COVID-19, and needed oxygen. Wickman collected money from her contacts to send back to Afghanistan, but Baran said her father wouldn’t use all the money on himself.

“My father is actually so kind,” Baran said. “In Afghanistan, he said you have to help your neighbors, everybody that you meet, you have to help them.” Baran believes that it is because of her father’s lifetime of generous deeds that Wickman has come into their lives, their honorary mom. “I think God sent Kerry for us,” Baran said, “Every time that we need something, or we are faced with a problem, she comes and helps us.”

It’s been two years since the harrowing U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, and there are stories like Baran’s playing out across the country, maybe in your neighborhood. In the house next door or the apartment downstairs, Afghan refugees could be trying to rebuild their lives in Utah and elsewhere. Many remain without family members, without jobs, and without the certainty of what their future in this country will be.

How are we connected to strangers from halfway across the world? What is our moral obligation to our new neighbors? What does it mean to be a welcoming community, and are we doing it? And what kind of a community do we want to be? Listen to “Stranger Becomes Neighbor” as we search for answers to these questions.

“Afghan Arrivals” is available at StrangerBecomesNeighbor.com, on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. New episodes are published every Tuesday.

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‘Stranger Becomes Neighbor’: Separated from parents, Afghan refugees land in Utah in the dark