Afghan refugees adjust to living in Utah


When chaos exploded three months ago in Afghanistan, people fled to other parts of the world. Gov. Spencer Cox issued a statement inviting and permitting Afghan refugees to relocate to Utah.

The International Rescue Committee, otherwise known as the IRC, opened its Salt Lake City location in 1994 and has served 12,000 individuals since.

Natalie El-Deiry is the executive director of the organization, but with the new Afghan refugees, she said she has been rolling up her sleeves, picking families up from the airport, setting up apartments and delivering goods.

IRC was started at the suggestion of Albert Einstein in 1933 to help those fleeing the Holocaust. It is now an international organization that is in 40 countries and 24 cities.

Lok Darjee, the refugee and cultural orientation coordinator at IRC and a refugee himself, called Utah the refugee state because of the saints’ persecution from Missouri.

“Utah has this really great history that empathizes with refugees,” Darjee said.

IRC will be welcoming 600 Afghan refugees and 600 additional refugees in the next fiscal year. IRC has programs set up to help refugees in every step of the relocation process. From the time someone arrive, IRC has programs set up to help with English class enrollment, cultural classes, and even help learning bus schedules. 

Darjee said language, culture and a lot of uncertainty is what is hardest for many refugees.

That’s why for IRC, they focus on integration.

“There’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of stress, there’s a lot of trauma that people have to overcome and so we are doing our best to help people navigate that, one step at a time,” El-Deiry said.

El-Deiry described the joy it brings to see refugees beginning to end, arriving with nothing versus five years later being able to buy a home, owning a business and finding financial and emotional stability.    

Darjee is one of these hope-filled stories. His family fled Bhutan to a Nepalese camp where he was born.

“My whole life is refugees. To me it was normal, right, normal to live in a place where there’s no light, there’s no running water, there’s no food enough for you to eat, there’s no safety. That’s just the camp,” he said.

While it’s illegal for refugees to work in Nepal, people are forced to. But this leads to exploitation.  

“And I realized that if I wanted to do something in the future, in life, living in Nepal in a refugee camp would be living in a vacuum. I’d never grow,” he said.

His family went through an intense screening process over the next few years until finally in 2011, they had the opportunity to come to America. But once they arrived, it wasn’t smooth sailing for Darjee and his family. 

“Nobody spoke English, I was the interpreter, and it was quite exhausting I’m not going to lie,” he said.

His mom was so overwhelmed that just after a couple days of being resettled, she said she wanted to go back because it was too difficult.

But, they didn’t give up that easily. “We are very resilient,” Darjee said.

Now, 10 years later, they are thriving. But they couldn’t have done it without the help of others. 

“It’s the little, tiny things that really changed me and my perceptions, and I really am grateful for those people,” he said.

El-Deiry said the best way Utahns can help refugees is learning the needs of the nearest organization and personally getting to know the refugees. 

“These are my people, who have lost everything but are willing to give everything. We came with nothing and we work so hard to be where we are at. We bring courage, we bring resilience, but we also bring a lot of good food, ya know?” he said. “Despite all the trauma we’ve gone through we still are willing to help other people, we still have this open heart to bring people in our life.”

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