As the Afghan family of seven walked through the Salt Lake City Airport, the family members faced new sights, sounds and smells welcoming them to their new home. But as they approached the baggage claim area, they were also met by hundreds of new friends.
Utahns gathered with balloons, posters, gifts and chocolate cake to welcome Hassan Barat Ali Hassan, Fozia Ramazan Ali Qurban Ali, their two sons, ages 15 and 4, and their three daughters, ages 11, 8 and 6. This is the last refugee family resettled by Catholic Community Services prior to the recent executive-ordered travel ban, said Danielle Stamos, CCS public relations and marketing director.
The family crossed the border into Pakistan several years ago while fleeing the Afghan war; they’ve lived in a refugee camp since then and applied for refugee status about two years ago. Their grandmother was barred from entering the U.S. because of the ban and will be sent back to Islamabad, Pakistan.
People knew about the family’s arrival from information shared on Twitter or from CCS and many others knew from Jared Potter’s Facebook event. Potter, a University of Utah student from Houston, Texas, is a CCS volunteer who took initiative and created the event himself.
“Salt Lake is a good community for being active and engaged,” Potter said. “I’m participating in the refugee march on Saturday so I knew there were a lot of people … passionate about refugees and knew we could get a good turnout. Traditionally we don’t invite a lot of people, but this one was obviously a special occasion.”
Utah locals and BYU students weren’t about to let the family’s arrival go without celebration — more than 1,000 Utahns were invited, attending or interested in the event on Facebook.
“I was overwhelmed. I was really proud of my city and of Utah,” Potter said. “I was just really happy to see so many people that were willing to come out and show their love and support.”
Charlotte and Kip Maxwell of North Salt Lake learned about the family’s arrival the previous night during a city meeting. Charlotte and Kip came with big smiles for the new family, along with a chocolate Costco cake.
“It’s better than I can make,” Charlotte said. “I thought they might be hungry.”
BYU world religions professor Elisa Pulido replaced the day’s class session with the option to welcome the Ali Hassan family instead. She hopes her students will become more involved in other religions as a result of her class, beginning with welcoming the family.
“This event was organized by Catholic charities, they were Muslim refugees and we have Mormon students from BYU Salt Lake Center here to support and welcome them,” Pulido said. “No one objected to coming. Like I said, I get the best students at BYU because they’re open to other cultures, other religions. They respect them and they want to know more about them.”
This event, she told her students, is historical and she’s grateful her students experienced it during their class.
Evan Starr, a BYU student from Temecula, California, went in conjunction with Pulido’s class.
“World religions is an interesting class because we really get to focus on, not so much our differences, but our similarities as people and what we believe in,” Starr said. “So it’s been cool to see that they have similar values and similar beliefs as we do, and it’s been a really cool opportunity to see that in action.”
Making their way through the crowd of welcomers, Ali Hassan and family then answered a few questions through an interpreter before leaving the airport.
“We didn’t live a life that we were supposed to live because of the current situation and the war going on in Afghanistan,” Ali Hassan said. “And that’s why we were compelled to migrate to Pakistan a few years ago because of the Taliban regime, and now we are hoping to get a better life in the United States.”