From Afghanistan to Salt Lake City: a refugee’s journey

23-year-old Naween Saeed came to Salt Lake City from Kabul, Afghanistan after Taliban forces took over her home country. She has jumped into a new way life here in the U.S., learning English, attending college and finding ways to support fellow refugees. (Cameron Cook)

In August 2021, the Saeed family fled their home in Kabul, Afghanistan with nothing but a backpack and hope for freedom. After a perilous escape from Taliban forces and nine long months in Germany, the family relocated again to Salt Lake City, where, at age 22, Naween Saeed has rebuilt her life. 

When U.S. military troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, Taliban quickly reasserted control over the country. Taliban’s takeover led to a collapse of the Afghan government, violent acts of terrorism and strict restrictions on women’s rights and personal freedoms. Thousands of Afghans fought for their lives to escape the country. 

“We were thinking, we will arrive there, we will be received by American friends. And that’s it. And we were there, there were like thousands, tens, thousands people … everybody was smashed to each other,” Naween’s father, Lutforahman Saeed, said as he recounted their experience at the Kabul airport.

“Taliban were there. They beat with lashes … eight people died in front of our eyes,” Lutforahman said.

The Saeed family made it safely out of Afghanistan to Germany, where they said they struggled with a difficult language and not-so-accepting culture toward refugees. Nine months after leaving Afghanistan, Naween’s father received a scholarship through BYU Law, and they decided to resettle again in Salt Lake City.

Despite the challenges of adjusting to yet another new country, language and culture, Naween has jumped in — learning English, enrolling in college and finding ways to support fellow refugees in Salt Lake.  

“It was a little bit of a culture shock for me and because I grew up in Afghanistan, a different way of clothing, wearing hijab … culture, it’s different. When we came here, there are some days, like Thanksgiving Day, Halloween Day, Christmas, we didn’t celebrate these days in Afghanistan,” Naween said.

Upon arriving in the U.S. a year and a half ago, Naween and her older brother began classes at BYU’s English Language Center. After two semesters of intense English study and a daily commute of nearly four-and-a-half hours roundtrip via public transportation, Naween said she felt confident in her language skills and began classes at Salt Lake Community College. 

Starting school in a new country meant adjusting to a new education system. Back in Afghanistan, she said there was little access to computers and learning involved rigorous memorization. Compared to the strict classroom policies and little flexibility in course selection at home, Naween said she was surprised when she first began college here. 

Naween and her 11 year old sister, Rahel. Rahel is in 6th grade, and said she wants to become a lawyer when she grows up. (Cameron Cook)

“When I came here I was surprised. ‘Oh, I can choose my classes?’ When I talked with my advisor, I told her it’s okay for me that I have four or five classes, it’s really okay for me,” Naween said. 

Though she was just a semester away from completing a law degree at Kabul University, a prestigious university in Afghanistan, Naween said she decided to start fresh in her education and pursue a degree in computer science. 

“Everyone told me that you have to transfer your credits, just one semester and you have your degree, ” Naween said. “The thing is, when I left it back home, I felt something … something bad, and I didn’t want to start again in that field.” 

Alongside her studies, Naween worked as an intern for Women of the World, a non-profit agency focused on serving those who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, many of whom are refugees from Afghanistan. According to the agency’s operations manager, Ryan Cook, Naween went beyond her duties as an office intern.

“She has so many skills that often she would help with translations and work in our English classrooms supporting Afghani women … she was always so capable and willing to help support our team and our clients,” Cook said. 

Naween shares her experience as an intern at Women of the World.

Though her internship ended a few months ago, Naween still finds time to go into Women of the World to help, showing both her hardworking nature and dedication to her community, Cook said. 

Having experienced first-hand the hardships of starting life over in a foreign country, Naween is determined to help other refugees like herself. She plans to transfer to a university and use her computer science skills to help other refugees. 

“When I become a little bit professional in my field, I want to start free online classes for (refugees) and show them which thing is more useful for them. Because they are new, I have experience here … That is my goal, to help people,” Naween said. 

Being forcibly displaced from one’s home and starting life over in a new country, with a completely different culture and way of living, is no easy task. One’s entire worldview is changed, and for refugees that come from more rural areas, or without the support of family members, the challenges are exasperated, Naween’s father said. 

Naween’s family shops at a special grocery store where they can buy meat that is halal, or slaughtered according to Islamic Law. Some traditional muslim dishes include Kabli (dish on the far right), meatballs, yogurt, lentils and more. (Cameron Cook)

“So being a refugee has a really uh, sad experience. Always almost I don’t think people understand the extent too. Uh, like how hard it is. There are some experiences, you must experience it, otherwise it’s not, it’s not transferable,” Lutforahman said. 

Even as they faced the difficulties of adapting to a new way of life, Naween and her family have shown nothing but positivity and gratitude to be in Salt Lake City. 

“We are surrounded by very nice people. We don’t have any issue. (My youngest daughter) is wearing a hijab when goes to school, and no one stop her. No one ask her, everyone is very open and friendly,” Lutforahman said.

Salt Lake City has been a major resettlement location for refugees. However, resettlement agencies can only support individuals for one year after they arrive in the U.S., Cook said. Women of the World is based in Salt Lake City and works to provide the personalized support the many refugees here in Utah need.

Those who would like to support the Women of the World mission can inquire about available volunteer and internship opportunities on the Women of the World website.

Naween’s father, Lutforahman Saeed, established his own NGO focused on Afghanistan research and development and teaches Islamic Law at BYU. Naween’s mother is taking several English classes to improve her language skills and teaches a class in Salt Lake City to help other refugee families. (Cameron Cook)
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