Murray • He wears the crisp blue shirt and tie of a businessman. He has an office and a dedicated staff, including a person who handles his schedule. But for the past few weeks, Yama Mustafawi hasn’t been actively running his medical massage equipment company.
Almost all of his time, sometimes more than 18 hours a day, is devoted to fellow Afghans, those trying to flee the country after the Taliban takeover in August and those who will soon call Utah home as refugees.
His phone buzzes constantly. People are collecting new clothes and toys. They offer their basement or spare bedroom. They volunteer to show new arrivals how to use a microwave or a washing machine.
Then there are the other calls — the panicked ones from people pleading for help to get out of Afghanistan. Just this week, Mustafawi helped get nine members of his own family to Pakistan. He relies on his contacts and friends back in his homeland. He sends money. And he makes sure he’s available, day and night.
“I lose sleep,” he said, “but they can lose life.”
The dire circumstances in Afghanistan have created a humanitarian crisis that is cascading through nearly every state in the U.S. In just a matter of weeks, Utah will welcome the first of what eventually will be 765 Afghan refugees.
These people are now at U.S. military bases, going through background checks and receiving medical exams (along with their COVID-19 vaccinations) before they are sent to their new homes.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox sent President Joe Biden a letter shortly after the Taliban swept into Kabul and forced the chaotic exit of the U.S. military and many Afghans. It said the Beehive State was poised to help.
“That was motivating,” Mustafawi said. “Wow, we are in a great state. We need to do our part.”
In reaction, he created the United Afghan American Coalition, a new organization that aims to provide additional support for refugees here.
His work is but one piece of a large effort to prepare for this influx of Afghans. At the governor’s direction, the state held an emergency meeting, and set up teams to work on housing, fundraising, basic supplies and community support.
“This is unprecedented,” said Asha Parekh, the state director of refugee services. “This is responding to an emergency situation.”
And as in many emergencies, the information is constantly changing. Here’s what the state knows about the Afghans slated to arrive soon.
Unprecedented wave of refugees
These refugees can arrive any time and the resettlement agency — either the International Rescue Committee or Catholic Community Services — will get about 48 hours’ notice.
In normal circumstances, the agencies have weeks to prepare, not hours.
The State Department has said it can process about 3,500 Afghans each week, so Utah doesn’t expect to get immediately overwhelmed. In all, the goal is to resettle roughly 95,000 Afghans by next September.
“This will allow us to plan a little bit more,” Parekh said, “so we don’t need to create a space for 100 people or more at the same time.”
Of the 765 Afghan refugees coming to Utah, 615 are being received by the International Rescue Committee, and that organization expects this to take about six months.
“We’ve experienced what we call ‘surges’ in the past and have been able to welcome families under those circumstances as well,” said Natalie El-Deiry, executive director for the organization in Salt Lake City.
But this year will be unlike anything Utah’s refugee resettlement agencies have faced before. At their peak, they helped roughly 1,200 refugees a year, but that was before former President Donald Trump drastically reduced the number allowed in the country.
Biden has reversed that, and Utah is once again poised to take in 1,200 refugees. The Afghans are on top of that. Utah is about to welcome more refugees than it ever has in the modern history of the national program.
Utah also will receive some Afghan children who have been separated from their parents. They’ll be placed in foster homes, with priority given to any Afghans who have been licenced through the state, Batar said.
What happens when they arrive?
When a resettlement agency gets the 48-hour notice that a refugee — or, in many cases, a family of refugees — is on the way, the group will spring into action. First step is finding a place for the refugee to live, relying on a network of landlords, the Utah Apartment Association, even Airbnbs.
Some refugees will start in temporary housing; others will go to more permanent spots. They’ll be spread throughout northern Utah, though most will be in Salt Lake County. Batar said he has a place already lined up for the family of eight.
They’ll be assigned a caseworker who will help set up their lives, everything from getting an ID card and a job to figuring out where to buy groceries and how to use standard appliances. The resettlement agencies are responsible for providing two years of assistance.
But not all Afghan refugees have the same status. Some have special immigrant visas, a sign that they or their close relative worked for or advised the government. Those who don’t have those visas are called humanitarian parolees. They are still going through the refugee process. They are legally allowed to be here and legally allowed to get a job, but they don’t get other government support.
To fill that gap, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will provide additional vouchers to be used at its Deseret Industry thrift stores. The state is coordinating a fund that Utahns can donate money to help the refugees. More information is expected to be released on that in the coming weeks. And community groups will step in.
Afghans helping Afghans
Afghanistan is a complicated country, with a mix of tribes, religions and ethnicities. There is not one community group that represents everyone. There’s a handful ready to provide a comforting cup of tea or a conversation in Dari or Pashto, the most common languages.
There are likely more than 1,000 Afghans already living in Utah.
Luna Banuri, executive director of the Utah Muslim Civic League, urgues Utahns to support the whole Afghan community, since each family has relatives and friends impacted by the Taliban resurgence.
“There are business owners... It is important to go out and support them,” Banuri said during an online town hall sponsored by the International Rescue Committee. “They are taking on a lot, by supporting their families back home, so if you know of the Afghan restaurants, if you know of the food trucks, if you know of other categories, please go support them.”
Wali Arshad Salem, owner of Afghan Kitchen, left his hometown of Kabul in 2014 with his wife and children. Arshad Salem used to work in a human resources office at the United Nations, close to the U.S. Army and consultants.
His family made the decision to leave after the Taliban made a direct threat to anyone with close ties to the U.S. government. He thought of his daughter, who at that time attended second grade.
“It was very, very dangerous,” he said, “for my wife and for my daughter who used to go to school.”
When Arshad Salem and his family landed in Salt Lake City, they found a landscape similar to the one he grew up in, surrounded by mountains, dry air and hot summers.
After working for a bank for a year, Arshad Salem decided to open Afghan Kitchen, a restaurant that features kebabs, flatbreads and spiced meats braised in yogurt sauce. Five years later, some Afghan families in Utah rely on his food for weddings and other celebrations.
“It’s a very supportive community here,” he said, “especially when something bad happens.”
He still yearns for home — and mostly his friends.
“I do have contact with them,” he said. “But, yeah, my Afghan friends, I miss them so much. I don’t see them anymore.”
Banuri, with the Utah Muslim Civic League, is heading up an effort to coordinate with the various Afghan community groups.
‘They should not feel alone’
For Amanullah Raheemi, board member of the Afghan American Cultural Society, the early focus will be offering a friendly face. “We just prepared ourselves to show our support, to teach them the culture,” he said, “also to get involved with the community. They should not feel alone.”
The society wants to be a resource, providing families directions to a halal market (where they can buy food that adheres to Islamic law), teaching them about the public transportation system, or helping build good money habits.
Raheemi expects these Afghans to adjust to a new culture quickly. “Give them a chance,” he said, “while these people keep learning.”
Ghazanfar Ali is a member of the Utah Hazara Association, representing a persecuted ethnic minority. His ancestors came from Afghanistan. He grew up in Pakistan and came here to get his doctorate. Now he’s helping the association raise money to support new Hazara refugees. The group also tried to identify jobs, so the new arrivals can support themselves and even send some money back to their relatives.
“It is really important,” Ali said, “to settle refugees as soon as they can to help their communities back home.”
For a time, Western Union was not operable and sending money back is hard. Mustafawi, with the United Afghan American Coalition, often sends money back. He is in contact with other Afghan groups on ways to support people still in that country and those coming here.
He was a refugee who arrived in the United States in 2004, joining his sister. The Taliban killed his brother-in-law, he said. Mustafawi, who said he’s always been an entrepreneur, created a company that sells massage chairs and other equipment in 2008. He named it after his mother, Zarifa.
He believes that Afghans here should take a leading role in helping and supporting the new arrivals, and he has some skepticism about the role that established groups play, worrying that they overpromise at times.
His intention is to hold the Utah community to its promises to these refugees. And he wants his volunteer organization to fill in gaps where it can, providing a welcoming environment for these new Utahns.
“I want to be a good example,” he said, “for our community and our people.”
How you can help
Utahns looking to assist these refugees can start by helping the resettlement agencies.
The group is also looking for donated storage facilities near downtown Salt Lake City. Because of the storage shortage, officials encourage donations of gift cards that would go directly to the families.
Catholic Community Services is also seeking donations.
Those interested in fostering a refugee child can start by attending a training hosted by CCS. All foster parents must be licensed by the state.
People can host an Afghan family in a free or discounted Airbnb.
The state is working on one central donation portal and will release information on that in the coming days.