Gov. Cox announces fund to support Utah’s arriving Afghan refugees

The state will receive 765 refugees over several months, and the fund will address resource gaps to help in the resettlement.

(Jordan Miller | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to attendees during a news conference announcing the creation of the Afghan Community Fund at the State Capitol on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox during a Tuesday news conference announced the creation of a fund to support the state’s arriving Afghan refugees.

According to a news release from the governor’s office, the Afghan Community fund is a public-private partnership that will “address resource gaps” identified through a needs analysis, with money going towards legal support, health care, education and special needs for women and children. The state is expected to receive 765 Afghan arrivals over the next several months.

Cox on Tuesday said he sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Aug. 17 “expressing Utah’s desire to help” as people across the state and country witnessed Afghans being forced to flee their home country. Utahns have always stepped up in national or global crises, Cox said, adding that the new fund is an example of that.

The fund has already raised $275,000, but an estimated $1 million is needed to “address resettlement agency, community and other needs not covered by federal dollars,” according to the governor’s office.

“The Afghan community fund is an opportunity for businesses and individuals to donate what they can and know their money will go directly to helping those Afghans that are resettling in Utah,” Cox said. “This is truly a unique and exceptional situation unlike really any other in our nation’s history. We have the responsibility — an opportunity — to lend a hand to our Afghan friends and neighbors, who will help make Utah an even better place to live.”

Abdul Baryalai came to Utah from Afghanistan in January 2017, through the special immigrant Visa program. He said resettlement agencies helped him adjust to his new home.

“Everything looked, to me, very new — all around,” Baryalai said. “Ground and sky, plants and trees. Culturally shocked. You’re sort of lost — ‘What is going to happen now?’”

Although Baryalai had more than 12 years of professional experience working for international organizations in Afghanistan and could speak English, his first job in the U.S. was working at a convenience store.

“When you move to a new country, things start from the beginning. But I never tried to give up,” Barylai said. “We had our own challenges, culture, people, laws, rules and regulations. But beside all those challenges, after a while, I was exposed to opportunities.”

Now, Baryalai works at Granite School District as a language interpreter, working with refugee students to help them acclimate into the school system smoothly.

“I share my stories with them, what I had gone through back in my home country,” Baryalai said. “That I was born in war, I was raised in the war, and I grew up and I spent 31 years of my life in the war. But I’m still here, helping them set their goals for their future.”

Naja Lockwood, co-chair of the Afghan Community Fund, is a refugee from Vietnam. She came to the U.S. with her family on July 20, 1975 empty-handed, save for some clothes and $100 from the U.S. government.

“I know firsthand the importance of a welcoming, supportive community,” Lockwood said. “Utahns are no different.”

Through the fund, Lockwood said donations will be made to resettlement agencies and community groups working to meet the needs of the state’s new Afghans. A committee — made up of leaders from Utah’s two resettlement agencies and organizations including the Muslim Civic League — will coordinate to ensure the funds will be distributed efficiently.

Individuals can donate to the fund at utahcf.org/afghan-response.

“There’s opportunities for everyone, men and women, to grow, to live a better and decent life,” Baryalai said. “My Afghan fellows who are new here asked me, ‘How are all these things managed? All these affairs, services being provided? What’s going on here in this country?’”

“I have no answer. There’s only one thing I tell them: This is a great nation. And it has passionate leaders.”