Azim Kakaie’s family is here now, in their new North Salt Lake apartment, thanks to a fellow Utahn.
Kakaie arrived on Aug. 31, the first Afghan to land in Utah following the Taliban takeover. But his wife, brother, mother-in-law and brother-in-law arrived two months later. Together on their daunting, delayed escape without Kakaie, they crossed a storm drain to the Kabul airport with the help of Staff Sgt. Taylor Hoover.
“He himself actually took my family’s hands one by one and pulled them from that water,” Kakaie said.
Thirty minutes later, the bombing began, and the Marine from Midvale was killed.
“These American heroes — that they sacrificed their life — they will stay in my heart,” Kakaie said in his living room recently.
He and his relatives are a few of the 765 Afghans due to arrive in Utah — a small portion of the 37,000 Afghans expected to resettle in the U.S following the takeover. The two primary organizations assisting with local resettlement, Catholic Community Services of Utah and the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City, have welcomed 299 Afghans as of Nov. 9.
But arriving is only the first step. Resettlement is a marathon, not a sprint.
“It’s going to take some time, but all the refugees here, they will find their way,” Kakaie said. “So everything might be OK for them, after some time.”
‘Building a life here’
When refugees arrive in Utah, IRC and CCS staffers help with everything from airport pickups to locating housing — one of the biggest challenges in resettlement as vacancies in the Salt Lake City area have hit a historic low, said Aden Batar, migration and refugee services director with Catholic Community Services.
“It has been very intense,” Batar said. “We have, every day, new arrivals coming in — day and night, weekends, 24/7.”
Natalie El-Deiry, the executive director of IRC, said getting arrivals settled quickly is the main priority. This refugee population in particular has been moving through a complicated process, with many staying at military bases for weeks before arriving in Utah.
Ideally, housing options are secured before families arrive, but the surge in arrivals alone has backlogged the process, along with health screenings, employment authorization and obtaining a Social Security number, which allows refugees to enroll in school or seek employment.
Right now, families typically stay in a hotel for about one to two weeks before CCS can secure permanent housing for them, Batar said.
Kakaie stayed with a cousin who lives in the area while he waited for permanent housing. He moved into an apartment just before his family arrived in early November. The nonprofit organization Afghan and Middle Eastern Women of Utah helped supply Kakaie with furniture and other items.
“It’s a step-by-step process, and it does take time to be able to do,” El-Deiry said. “But agencies like the IRC and then the other partners are here to support people every step along the way, both with their immediate needs, and then those longer-term needs, and understanding of the context of building a life here.”
‘It takes time’
After refugees initially arrive, IRC performs a variety of assessments to make sure families have or can get food and groceries, delivering Halal meals — made up of food that adheres to Islamic law — to their hotel rooms along with food boxes, donated supplies like hygiene products, and gift cards to purchase personal items.
IRC and CCS also coordinate efforts with local organizations like the Utah Muslim Civic League, so volunteers can provide services and donations to families. Right now, Utahns can support these efforts with direct donations to the organizations or through the Afghan Community Fund.
Beyond the basics, services like IRC’s English as a second language classes and its four-hour cultural orientation on U.S. laws and customs provide a first step in helping Afghans become comfortable in their new home.
Fatima Baher, who founded Afghan and Middle Eastern Women of Utah, arrived in Utah from Syria as a refugee herself about 15 years ago. Baher knew some English at the time, but the rest of her family did not — making simple errands like grocery runs nerve-wracking.
She remembers how her family’s caseworker once dropped them off at a store to do some shopping, planning to pick them up later. But they couldn’t step inside.
“And the caseworker, she told us ‘It’s OK, don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. Just go in,’ And in that moment, you know the connection — I felt OK,” Baher said. “Because our caseworker, she was an immigrant herself. And I was like, OK, so she’s been through what we are going through, you know. So she felt the same thing, like us.”
Once they entered, Baher and her family tried to ask for things, but “everything was different,” with item labels and descriptions written only in English. She remembers asking a woman if a product was meant for washing dishes, pointing to a container and gesturing in a scrubbing motion. The woman returned the same gesture, confirming it was dish soap.
“It was nice and funny at the same time,” Baher said. “People around us were very helpful.”
Kakaie and his brother speak English; his wife and brother-in-law can both understand it, but they are working to speak it, he said.
El-Deiry, with IRC, visits with each family the organization helps resettle. Usually, one person in the household can speak some English, though it’s “quite varied,” like in Kakaie’s household, she said. But there is a deep desire and willingness to learn — ESL classes are often the first thing new arrivals ask about.
“I’m connected with a lot of people now on WhatsApp, and we’re writing back and forth in English, and sometimes they’re like, ‘My English is not very good,’ and I’m like, ‘Actually, your English is pretty good,’” El-Deiry said.
It takes time, she said. “And so I think it’s really important that we allow people that grace and that opportunity to take the time to learn — knowing that this is about building a life for themselves and their families in our community, and not just the immediate term.”
Sitting on a couch draped with an American Flag, Kakaie paused as he recounted the emotional story of how he and his family were able to escape Afghanistan and ultimately resettle in Utah.
Kakaie worked as an air traffic controller at the Kabul airport, where he helped planes take off as long as he could the day the Taliban took the country’s capital city. The next day, his supervisors ultimately encouraged him to get on a plane himself, because it was unsafe for him to stay.
He landed in Qatar, where he spent three days and many phone calls working to get his family out, too.
On the evening of that third day, his relatives slept on the street just outside the airport, enduring beatings by the Taliban so severe that his wife’s feet only recently recovered from the bruises. The next day, they were able to access the airport’s gates via a storm drain, where they met Hoover.
Kakaie’s mother-in-law kissed Hoover’s hands twice through tears once they made it through, Kakaie said. She tried to take a picture with him, but it was too chaotic. So she remembered his name, in the hopes that they could reunite in Utah.
Hoover’s family later invited Kakaie to a memorial service.
“I was in tears, crying for the whole time,” Kakaie said.
Kakaie said he and his family have vowed to work hard in Utah, so that one day they can honor the Marine who saved them, with “a school, or a library or something by the name of Taylor Hoover.”
“That’s one of my big dreams,” he said.