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Desperation in Afghanistan brings fear and hope in Utah. Robert Gehrke explains how Utahns can help.

An Afghan immigrant, a diplomat and a refugee aid worker know the gravity of this moment.

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) In this April 22, 2020, photo, Afghan refugee Mahmood Amiri poses with daughter Safa, and his wife Masouda, in West Valley City, Utah. Coronavirus restrictions have affected refugee families in the same ways as anyone else — job losses, child care challenges — but many are navigating the turmoil in a language they don't fully understand and without extended family or close friends to help. Amiri arrived in the United States more than a month ago, but his children are still waiting for their first day at school and the family has yet to go to the mosque to meet fellow Muslim families.

Utah is half a world away from the surreal scenes of chaos and panic playing out in Afghanistan, but we’re still deeply connected. As Afghans who worked with Americans desperately try to escape, I talked to three Utahns who know the dangers but still hold out hope.

‘He’s not going to be OK’

Mahmood Amiri brought his wife and four children to Utah on a Special Immigrant visa in March of last year. He left because he feared retaliation from the Taliban for his work as an interpreter for the U.S. Army.

His father was left behind.

“His life is in danger because now the Taliban is continuing to go to homes of the people” to find family members of those who helped U.S. forces. “He’s not going to be OK.”

Amiri has only been able to check on him sporadically. His wife, Masouda, also has parents who were left behind.

The rapid collapse of his homeland was unexpected, Amiri said.

“Suddenly we heard that [the Taliban] attacked in Kabul. The army didn’t fight. They just told our president he needed to leave,” he told me. “Everyone thought it’s not happening that they can come and capture all of Kabul City, but this was so surprising for them.”

He has tried for days to reach someone in the State Department, but without any success.

In this April 22, 2020, photo, Afghan refugee Mahmood Amiri poses for a photograph with his family, in West Valley City, Utah. The coronavirus restrictions imposed across the U.S. have affected refugee families in many of the same ways as other Americans, but many of them are forced to navigate it in a language they aren't yet fluent in and without support networks of extended family or trustworthy friends. Amiri arrived in the United States more than a month ago, but his children are still waiting for their first day at school and the family has yet to go to the mosque to meet fellow Muslim families. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

‘Last and only chance’

Kael Weston, who served with the State Department in Khost Province in Eastern Afghanistan (and ran for Congress in Utah last year) shared a few of the emails he’s getting from people who are trapped.

In an email Weston received with the subject line “Last and only chance,” an Afghan pleads for him to do whatever he can to get him out. “Even my hands are shaking as i write this to you and really can’t concentrate,” it read. “It is highly likely that at any moment anything could happen to me.”

Another wrote that Taliban soldiers had spent days searching for those who worked with the U.S. and coalition forces in any capacity. “That’s why everyone is feeling that we are put to wolves,” the email read.

“All of us who had a real stake [in it], part of our soul is owned by Afghanistan, because of the people, the beauty, the hardship, we’re not objective,” Weston told me. “We’re too close to the land, too close to the people, too close to the human toll that is happening over there.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Weston argued that, rather than complete withdrawal, the better course would have been to “go as low as we could go” on troop levels and “stay as long as we could” to provide stability as well as maintain a presence near the Pakistan border.

But staying behind was politically unpopular. So last year, the Trump administration cut a deal to withdraw — a move praised by the likes of Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Chris Stewart. And, despite escalating violence, Biden stuck to the deal (despite delaying withdrawal by a few months).

Regardless your view on withdrawal, by any metric and in any world, it was as disastrous a departure as anyone could have imagined, complete with images of desperate Afghans clinging to transport planes until they couldn’t hold on and fell to their death.

The political finger pointing began at the first signs of trouble and hasn’t let up with conservatives blaming Biden for botching the withdrawal, the left pointing the finger back at Trump for negotiating the deal and pushing for a quicker pull-out.

It’s unsurprising and also not at all helpful.

“Where we are now is actually helping human beings who will be killed if we don’t do it. That is the urgency now. There will be time for blame later,” Weston said. “We need our electeds to try to be big in a moment of crisis and try at least for a while not to play politics with it.”

Yes, we absolutely need accountability. We need to dissect what went wrong and who bears the blame, how to minimize the long-term consequences and prevent future catastrophic missteps, as well as how this impacts America’s reputation abroad and our strategic footing in the region.

There will be time to unravel all of that — and nobody responsible for this catastrophe should be let off the hook.

Right now, though, thousands of lives are in jeopardy and the focus at home needs to be on stabilizing the country enough to evacuate those in harms way, getting them to safety and alleviating the human toll.

‘We just need to help’

There’s a feeling of helplessness, watching all of this unfold half a world away. But there are things that Utahns can do to help, said Natalie El-Deiry, executive director of the Salt Lake City office of the International Rescue Committee.

In addition to sending 10 staff members to Virginia to help process incoming refugees over the last several weeks, it is preparing to connect refugees resettling in Utah find a furnished apartment, get a job, enroll their children in school, get access to health services — “just all the basic needs to help people rebuild their lives,” as El-Deiry puts it.

El-Deiry said her organization pairs new arrivals with volunteer family mentors to help the refugee families learn to navigate the city and learn basic language skills. They offer tutoring programs for students and other services for children.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aden Batar of Catholic Community Services speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. The news conference addressed the Salt Lake County's Nourish to Flourish project that brings service providers and local restaurants together to provide warm meals for children in need and supports restaurants by paying them for hundreds of meals a day.

Aden Batar, the head of refugee programs for Catholic Community Services, finding housing in a tight market is a struggle, so they need to connect with potential landlords, as well as people who would be willing to hire the refugees when they arrive.

Batar said he is expecting the first refugees — a family of eight — to arrive in Utah within a few days. Between his group and IRC, Batar said they can accommodate as many as 1,300 refugees a year.

Both groups also are asking for financial donations, which can be made at their respective web sites: www.ccsutah.org and www.rescue.org/united-states/salt-lake-city-ut

It is, indeed, encouraging to see Gov. Spencer Cox reaffirm our state’s openness to those desperate to escape. Time is indeed of the essence and we need to do all we can.

“We just need to help,” Batar said. “People are dying. People are in a dire situation right now.”

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