Utah preparing for Afghan refugees, students can help

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BYU students tie quilts in the Wilkinson Student Center. Y-Serve Refugee hosts these service projects to help refugees most Wednesdays. (Melanie Andrews)

Busy college students spend their Wednesday evenings sewing quilts. The students gather in groups, chatting and tying large pieces of brightly colored fabric together with yarn. Loud music boosts the energy level in the room, encouraging students to work hard to complete the projects. They are not making these quilts to benefit themselves. They are for refugees, displaced people making sacrifices to travel to a foreign place and start new. 

“I feel like this is just a small way that we are able to give back, just by simply making it a warmer place for them to sleep on,” said Miriam Zeidner, a freshman from American Fork. “You never really know all the impact you can make just by coming on campus for two hours.”

Y-Serve organizes refugee service projects most Wednesdays from 7-9 p.m. in the Wilkinson Student Center terrace. At one meeting this month, students completed three quilts, one and a half sleeping mats, four pillows, many masks and 15 dolls, according to the Y-Serve Refugee Instagram page.  

Many organizations and volunteers, like the BYU student volunteers at Y-Serve Refugee, are preparing for the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan. The U.S. Department of State has notified the state of Utah that in the coming months, Utah can expect 765 Afghan refugees, according to news updates given on Gov. Spencer Cox’s website.

For students like Zeidner, the struggles refugees experience are not a foreign concept. Around the age of 15, Zeidner said her family took in two refugee foster sisters.

“They cried every time they had warm chicken. You never know how much they are going through. I think everyone deserves a chance to have a warm meal and to sleep on a warm bed,” Zeidner said. 

Mark Choate spent 2010 and 2011 in Afghanistan and is now an associate professor of history at BYU. (Mark Choate)

BYU history professor Mark Choate is an expert in Afghan history. He spent 2010 and 2011 in Afghanistan touring 17 provinces with the United States Special Operations Command.

Following the defeat of the Soviet Union, the United States and other countries that provided aid to Afghanistan left. Warlords took over, followed by the Taliban, a religious group that hosts “international terrorism.” This is where the 9/11 attacks were “mastermined and engineered,” Choate said. 

Choate explained that the United States’ intervention helped create stability again within Afghanistan. After several years, American troops were once again pulled out, leaving the country vulnerable. Without any “support and air-power,” the Afghan military fell apart. Afghanistan is once again controlled by the Taliban, Choate said.

“Pulling out everything at once was basically predetermining the collapse of Afghanistan … it’s not the Afghans’ fault,” Choate said.

A military plane is stationed in Afghanistan. This photo was taken by BYU history professor Mark Choate during his time in Afghanistan. (Mark Choate)

Choate explained that Afghan refugees will likely feel at home here as Utah has a similar geographical landscape to Afghanistan. 

In August, Cox sent a letter to President Joe Biden, offering Utah’s help in bringing Afghans out of Afghanistan and the Taliban’s rule.

“We have a long history of welcoming refugees from around the world and helping them restart their lives in a new country. We are eager to continue that practice and assist with the resettlement of individuals and families fleeing Afghanistan,” Cox said in the letter.

According to Cox’s website, it is expected for refugees that have received security screenings, medical examinations and vaccinations to move from U.S. military bases to other states, like Utah, after Oct. 1.

“Our state was settled by refugees fleeing religious persecution 170 years ago. Their descendants have a deep understanding of the danger and pain caused by forced migration and an appreciation for the wonderful contributions of refugees in our communities,” Cox said. 

For students and faculty who are interested in helping Afghan refugees settle in Utah, service opportunities can be found through Catholic Community Services. This organization provides opportunities for anyone to donate money or volunteer. Volunteers are needed to teach ESL, tutor youth, and transport and sort donations. Volunteers are also needed to mentor families in working toward being self-sufficient. 

The International Rescue Committee is another impactful organization providing help to refugees coming to Utah. Opportunities and ways to help are listed on its website

Justin Childs is the executive director of Y-Serve Refugees and likes to put himself in the refugees’ shoes. “If I had to get away, if I had to leave everything behind, for my own safety. Or if I’m forced out of where I am comfortable, forced out of my home, it’s devastating,” he said.

At the Y-Serve Refugee meetings, volunteers make sleeping pads, quilts, masks and children’s education materials. The group works with a non-profit, called Stitching Hearts Worldwide. The organization provides materials and instructions and distributes the finished products made by BYU volunteers. Readers can find more information on the Y-Serve website and weekly updates on its Instagram page.

“Seeing as these people are forced out of their homes or trying to flee in some way, shape or form, any little bit that we do is just moving mountains for them,” Childs said. 

The BYU Kennedy Center is hosting an event, “The Islamic World Today: Issues and Perspectives,” on Oct. 18-19 to help educate students about the crisis in Afghanistan. Featured speakers at the conference include Elder David A. Bednar and Elder Gerrit W. Gong, members of the Quorum of the Twelve, along with many Muslim professors from colleges around the country. 

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