Small Hands

By Andrea Smardon

Kerry Wickman talks with 6-year-old Ava near her apartment in Salt Lake City on July 27. The child’s identity is not shown to protect her family from the Taliban. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The 5-year-old girl knelt on the carpet next to a white piece of paper and rummaged through a collection of colored pencils in a large can.

While she searched, she glanced at the woman sitting next to her on the floor. 

“Put your eyes closed!” she ordered.

After a few seconds, she thrust a pink pencil high above her head in triumph. She remembered the woman said she liked pink. Then, with the pencil in her grasp, she pushed her tongue against the space at the front of her mouth where her baby teeth used to be and intently crafted the letter ‘A’.

When the woman opened her eyes, she laughed, a mixture of admiration and disbelief. She’d learned so much in such a short amount of time. 

This little girl, who we’ll call Ava, was one of about 80,000 Afghans to make it to America during the dangerous and chaotic evacuation at the Kabul airport following the U.S. military withdrawal in August 2021. She and her extended family were all trying to get into the airport, but in the masses of people pressing towards the gates, they were separated. Ava’s aunt carried the small girl in her arms so she wouldn’t be crushed in the crowd. The girl and two of her aunts, then ages 15 and 31, somehow made it through the airport gates, but their parents did not. 

Eventually, they were sent to Salt Lake City, Utah, as part of the federal government’s resettlement program. They do not want to use their names because they’re afraid for the safety of their family members who remain in Afghanistan.

As they struggled to rebuild their lives in a new home in a new country without their family, they met a neighbor named Kerry Wickman who lived a couple blocks away. She’s the one who was admiring Ava’s new alphabet skills.

When Wickman first met this family, Ava constantly expected her mother and father to show up at their Salt Lake city apartment. As weeks turned to months, she started kindergarten, made friends, and began learning English. She did it all without being able to seek guidance from mom or advice from dad. 

Over time, Wickman’s frequent visits began to fill a void for the whole family and eventually, she wasn’t just Kerry, a nice lady from down the street.

They started calling her mom.

“Can you do a ‘K’?” Wickman asked, thinking of her first name. “Or an ‘M’ for Mom?”

“I’ll do ‘K’,” Ava decided, as she furrowed her brow and pressed down with the pink pencil.

Wickman, who is a social worker, said when Ava first arrived, she refused to speak to her parents on video chats. 

“She’d see their faces and hear their voices, but wouldn’t look, would turn away,” Wickman said. “I think that she  – not understanding what happened  – believes that they abandoned her, that she wasn’t important enough for them to come along. I don’t know how you rectify this damage until this family is reunited again. I don’t know how this is going to end up for Ava.”

Since meeting this family, Wickman has done everything possible to help bring Ava’s parents to the US. She even researched the possibility of paying for a private rescue flight. When that didn’t pan out, she started talking to attorneys, politicians and officials, anyone who would listen.

“This family’s life was in danger. The Taliban were searching for people to hurt and kill who had family members in the U.S.,” she said. “It was incredibly dangerous. It still is.”

They were advised by lawyers, if they wanted to bring their family to the country, they needed permanent residence themselves. Like most Afghans who were evacuated to the U.S. in 2021, they were allowed to stay under a temporary status called humanitarian parole. 

They have to apply for asylum in order to get a green card, to get on a path towards citizenship. Everything depends on this asylum application – whether they can stay in the US legally, and whether they can bring their family to join them. 

“Everybody’s nervous”

“Everybody’s nervous because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Ava’s teenage aunt. 

“If they don’t approve our case, maybe the lawyer said that you’re going to have to go back to your country,” Ava’s older aunt said. 

The fear that they’ll have to return to the country they fled is something many Afghans evacuated to America feel. In the final episode of the KSL Podcast “Stranger Becomes Neighbor”, Ava’s family and others struggle with the uncertainty of their immigration status and the continued separation from family. The people who have become their friends and neighbors try to help, but what can ordinary people do to change federal policy or to speed up the backlog of asylum applications? 

Attorney Emily Nuvan felt the pressure when she volunteered to file an asylum application for an Afghan soldier from the Female Tactical Platoon who had assisted US special forces. Nuvan, who had only recently graduated from law school, was working mostly in white collar crime and securities litigation. Before taking on this pro bono case, she had never felt such a heavy responsibility. 

“It really is having another person’s life in your hands,” Nuvan said. “If they don’t get approved for asylum, they would be sent back to Afghanistan, they’d be in danger of their lives. So this is a lot of weight on my shoulders.”

Of the 43 soldiers from the Female Tactical Platoon now living in the U.S., 16 have been granted asylum. The woman who Nuvan represents is still waiting. 

Aden Batar, Director of Migration and Refugee Services for Catholic Community Services of Utah, said he has been trying to reassure Afghans.

“You don’t need to worry about your status,” Batar said to a group of evacuees that attended an informational meeting. “The government brought you here, they’re not going to abandon you. One way or the other, we will get everybody their legal status,” he said. “It might take some time.”

Batar was more concerned that once their temporary status expired, Afghans could lose access to government assistance, or the ability to work legally or obtain healthcare. Basically, if they don’t have this status, they may find it impossible to live in the country.

“We don’t want anything interrupting their benefits that they’re receiving from the state,” he said. “If the parole ends, and they don’t have other immigration status, their benefits may be interrupted.”

In August, 2022, a bipartisan coalition in Congress introduced new legislation called the Afghan Adjustment Act. The bill was designed to speed up the process to obtain lawful permanent residence for evacuees and to clear a pathway for those eligible in Afghanistan to come to the US. 

In this bill, Kerry Wickman saw a chance to help her friends secure their futures in the country, and hopefully, a path to reunite Ava with her parents. Wickman, who never intended to get involved in politics, found herself working alongside military veterans and faith-based groups who were also advocating for the bill. She wrote editorials and met with U.S. senators and representatives, telling them about Ava’s family. But to this day, there has not been a vote in Congress on the Afghan Adjustment Act.  

“I don’t know what else I can do,” she told the family. Over time, they stopped asking her for updates or information, a sign that they were losing hope. “We’re just waiting.”

Then, on June 8th, 2023, just as their temporary status was about to expire, the Biden administration announced a fix – an extension of humanitarian parole for another two years. But this was another temporary solution. It did not get them any closer to lawful, permanent residence.

Baran, 17, graduated from West High School in Salt Lake City on June 9th, the day after President Biden announced that humanitarian parole would be extended for Afghan arrivals like her. Her face is not shown to protect her family in Afghanistan. (Photo: Andrea Smardon, KSL Podcasts)

While they live with the uncertainty of their status in the country and the anxiety of being separated from family, Ava celebrated her sixth birthday and started first grade, her 17-year-old aunt graduated from high school, and her 32-year-old aunt got her driver’s license. Kerry Wickman has been with them throughout, as their stand-in “Mom,” introducing Ava to swimming, taking them to appointments, navigating job and college applications, cheering them on or offering a shoulder to cry on during their triumphs and setbacks. 

They were doing their best to build new lives in America, even as their hopes about being reunited with their families dimmed. But then one day, they got an unexpected phone call from home. They didn’t dare tell Ava, but there was a chance her parents might finally be coming to live with her in the U.S. That’s in the final episode of “Stranger Becomes Neighbor”. 

The Need for Friendship

By Andrea Smardon

Mohammad Saleem, 25, a veteran of the Afghan National Strike Units lived in San Antonio, Texas before he died on August 6th, 2023. (Photo FAMIL)

On a Sunday afternoon in August, a 25-year-old man walked into a lake on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas and never came out. 

Rescue workers gave up the search that night when it got too dark to see. But the next morning, they found his body. His name was Mohammad Saleem, and he was one of the Afghans who was evacuated to America after the U.S. military pulled out of the country in 2021 and the Taliban took power. Local news reports called the drowning an accident, but when Geeta Bakshi heard the news on August 6th, she suspected that was not the whole story. 

Bakshi is a former CIA intelligence operations manager and counterterrorism expert. In her 14-year career, she spent four years in Afghanistan. In 2021, she started an organization to ensure that Afghan partners who served on behalf of the United States are supported as they resettle in America. She called it FAMIL, which means family in Dari. Bakshi met Saleem when her organization hosted an event in Texas. He and others like him are the reason she started her non-profit, and she considered him part of the larger family of veterans she serves. 

FAMIL’s main mission is to support the fighters who served in the Afghan National Strike Units (NSU). Also known as the Zero Units, they were a clandestine antiterrorism force operating in partnership with the U.S. intelligence community and the military, though the American government has released very little information about them.

“Think of it like the most dangerous places in Afghanistan where it was not safe for conventional U.S. military forces to operate,” Bakshi said. “The Zero Units were the tip of the spear. They were the ones that were really putting their lives at risk to go after some of the most deadly targets.” These units have been in operation since early in the 20-year war in Afghanistan, capturing and sometimes killing targets including al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Haqqani Network, and the Taliban. 

Though Americans know little about what the NSU did on behalf of U.S. interests, many of the Afghans who are now living in our communities served in these units. Bakshi estimates Saleem is one of more than 10,000 NSU veterans in the U.S. With their spouses and children, their number totals about 35,000. 

When FAMIL staff and volunteers heard that Saleem had drowned, they talked to those who knew him best and examined his social media posts. What they found was devastating, but not unexpected. In fact, for Bakshi, it was all too familiar. 

“We learned that he was struggling with a lot of stress, anxiety, confusion,” Bakshi said. “Even the night before that, he was feeling hopeless, and wasn’t sure what his future would look like, and wasn’t sure if he wanted to live anymore.” 

Bakshi wrote a memo on behalf of FAMIL addressed to members of Congress and the administration, calling it a tragic loss potentially involving a death by suicide. 

“He was really worried about his family and their safety since they had been left behind,” she said. “As a result of his work with the NSU and his affiliation with the US government, his family was at risk, and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to see them again.” 

In addition to the stress of being separated from family, Saleem’s immigration status was uncertain in the U.S. The Zero Unit fighters are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas reserved for Afghans and Iraqis who helped the United States. But these applications can take years to be processed, since they have been mired in backlogs even before the mass evacuation of Afghanistan.  

“It doesn’t matter how well you fill out a form,” Bakshi said. “It goes into this dark hole and you don’t know how long your process is going to take. That stress, I can’t even describe it because I’m seeing it day in and day out, you know, the panicked phone calls about what’s going to happen.”

While Saleem’s visa application was pending, the two-year temporary status of humanitarian parole allowing him and other Afghans to stay in the country expired this summer. He would need to re-apply to be able to stay and be legally employed. His work permit was also about to expire. 

“How would he keep a job, earn an income, and be able to support himself and his family?” Bakshi asked. “He had seen that some of his teammates were already losing jobs, because work permits are getting ready to expire and perhaps employers don’t want to take that risk.”

Bakshi said that Saleem’s worries are all too common among the men who served in Zero Units. 

“Unfortunately, this individual and others like him are still struggling with these feelings of abandonment and hopelessness and uncertainty about their future,” she said. “It’s a bit of a shock when you think about how much they’ve done for our country. It’s very difficult by comparison to look at the immigration limbo that they’re in right now.”

A Community Embrace

Jennifer Hua of Cedar Hills, UT holds the newborn baby of a Zero Unit veteran at American Fork Hospital. (Photo Jennifer Hua)

Two former Zero Unit members are among those who shared their struggles to build new lives in America with a new KSL podcast – “Stranger Becomes Neighbor.” Their existence in the US is precarious as they try to learn English, find jobs, and afford a home, all while supporting family members at risk in Afghanistan. In the podcast, there are moments of heartbreak, but also of triumph shared with friends and neighbors. How they’re able to overcome the challenges they face depends in part on the friends they make and whether or not they are embraced by the community that surrounds them. 

One former fighter from the Zero Units experienced the support of an entire neighborhood when he, his pregnant wife, and their two children moved in. Volunteers took him to job interviews, tutored the family in English, and even donated a car. One new friend – who they had only known for a couple of weeks – helped with the delivery of their baby. Given everything they had endured, the veteran said something unexpected when asked if he ever felt joy since he moved to the US.

“Yes,” he said. “Every moment is joyful.” 

Could his family’s experience provide a model for how to welcome our newest neighbors into our communities? Listen to “Stranger Becomes Neighbor” to find out. 

An extended conversation with Geeta Bakshi is featured in a bonus episode of “Stranger Becomes Neighbor”, available on Apple Premium.

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Bridging the Gap

By Andrea Smardon

Volunteers load boxes in a shopping center parking lot to deliver to 25 newly arrived Afghan families. (Ryan Meeks, KSL Podcasts)

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, a flurry of activity erupted outside of a strip mall in a suburb of Salt Lake City. As dozens of cars pulled in and families dressed in their Sunday best piled out, even one of the organizers was alarmed at just how many people showed up. 

“Oh my gosh,” she exclaimed, “This is a bigger crowd than I thought!”

Nazifa is a refugee from Afghanistan who arrived in the US in 2002. She doesn’t want to use her last name because she is still worried about the safety of the family members who remain in her home country. When she and others organized this event in December of 2021, she hoped volunteers would show up to help families relocated to Utah after the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan four months earlier. But a language barrier was making the logistics of this plan a bit more complicated than she expected. On one hand, she had about 75 Utahns anxious to help their newest neighbors. On the other hand, she had only three translators to help them communicate with families who spoke little or no English.

“Do we have more translators?”, she asked the young man standing next to her, as the crowd of volunteers assembled on the asphalt.

“Just us three,” he replied. 

By early December of 2021, about 450 Afghans had arrived in Utah. That number would double in just a couple of months. Nazifa was trying to help as many of them as she could, particularly those from her Hazara community, a persecuted minority in Afghanistan. Through her efforts, she had met a woman named Jennifer Hua, who’d offered to roll up her sleeves and assist where she could. 

“She needed a ton of help. So I’m like, ‘OK, I found my spot’,” Hua said.  

The two women started organizing volunteers to meet the new Afghan arrivals, many of whom were staying temporarily in hotels. Normally, refugees would be placed directly in long-term homes or apartments by resettlement agencies, but because so many Afghans were arriving on short notice during an affordable housing shortage, the agencies had to find alternatives. 

While the agencies were maxed out just trying to meet basic needs like housing and healthcare, ordinary people like Hua and Nazifa – took it upon themselves to fill in the gaps they saw in the lives of these new Utahns. 

“A few of us went out and saw a family – they only had rice and oil,” Hua said, “When I saw that, I just couldn’t sleep that night. We were meeting so many Afghan families that just needed a lot of help.” She quickly realized they were limited in what they could do on their own. “We’re at capacity,” Hua said. “I needed to blast the word out to get more help.”

That’s when Hua got the idea for what she called a “flash service project.” She reached out to her network in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to find volunteers, and the response was overwhelming. 

“I just sent the word out to come and help… and we got a lot of people.”

Jennifer Hua addresses a group of volunteers in a shopping center parking lot in Midvale, UT on Sunday Dec. 5, 2021, as they pack boxes with supplies to deliver to newly arrived Afghan families. (Ryan Meeks, KSL Podcasts)

In the parking lot, Hua opened the trunk of her car, and pulled out large bags of flour, boxes of diapers, and whole chickens, while volunteers started distributing them into a couple dozen boxes lined up on the pavement. 

“We are just taking boxes of food to several families in the area and also some hygiene and some cleaning kits for them just to get started,” Hua explained. The idea was that volunteers would deliver the supplies to about 25 Afghan families living in various parts of the Salt Lake valley. Nazifa had identified which families needed help through her connections in the community. 

But as the volunteers loaded the boxes in their cars, and headed off to meet the Afghan families, Nazifa worried about whether they’d be able to communicate because there weren’t nearly enough translators. The service project was meant to deliver more than a box of food. She hoped these volunteers would start relationships with the new arrivals to help them through the challenges they faced in the months to come.

Would this army of volunteers that appeared in a flash disappear just as quickly after their deliveries? Or was it possible that a box of groceries could be the beginning of a more meaningful relationship? 

The new KSL podcast “Stranger Becomes Neighbor” explores the efforts of people like Nazifa and Jennifer Hua as they try to find ways to aid the Afghan arrivals in our communities. But they would discover that it wasn’t so easy to bridge the gap between what people wanted to give and what people needed. 

The Biggest Need

Inside one of the hotel rooms, a middle-aged Afghan man dressed in a button-up shirt and sweatpants, sat on the end of a queen bed telling his story to several volunteers huddled up against the wall, while Nazifa translated for them. He explained that he was a deputy governor for three provinces, had helped to oversee elections, and had worked closely with Americans. That made him and his family targets. He was here with his 21-year-old son, but his wife and his four younger children were still in Afghanistan. He said his uncle was already killed by the Taliban. He was afraid for his family’s safety, and he worried how they would survive. 

He thanked everyone for the visit and for the box of food, but added that it wasn’t food he needed. 

“He’s worried about his wife and kids in Afghanistan,” Nazifa translated. “He’s asking me if you know anybody that can help him in the process, how he can bring his kids and wife here, that’s his concern.”

Nazifa translates for an Afghan man who is staying in a hotel with his 21-year-old son. He thanks the volunteers for the food delivery, but says his biggest concern is for the safety of his wife and four younger children still in Afghanistan. (Ryan Meeks, KSL Podcasts)

In the hotel lobby, a married couple who came to volunteer were moved by his plea.

“I thought we were just going to drop a food box off,” Emily Loria said. “The horror of that story just kind of resonates. My heart goes out to them.” 

“It’s frustrating how helpless you feel,” Jeff Loria said. “Like the one gentleman said many times, he’s fine. It’s his family he’s worried about, so groceries to him isn’t really going to solve his biggest need.”

“They also need friends”

The biggest and most pressing concerns of many of the arrivals would prove difficult for even a motivated local community to address. Many of our newest neighbors had been separated from members of their families. On top of that, most of them arrived with a temporary status called humanitarian parole. So before they could even apply for a visa for family members, they needed to obtain more permanent status for themselves. But getting asylum in the US can take years. 

This same issue rose to the surface at a high profile event involving some powerful people in the state. In February 2022, with the help of Nazifa and Jennifer Hua, Utah’s first lady Abby Cox organized a shopping trip at a local grocery store for 15 Afghan families. Governor Spencer Cox was also there, and the first family invited the media to cover the event, in hopes that it would inspire people to help their neighbors. 

Utah Governor Spencer Cox, First Lady Abby Cox and spouses of state legislators volunteer to help new Afghan arrivals fill their shopping carts at a Macey’s grocery store in Salt Lake City on February 18, 2022. (Andrea Smardon, KSL Podcasts)

“We think that Utah is the most generous, most loving and kind state in the nation, and we’re showing that to our refugee families here,” the First Lady said to a ring of TV cameras in the produce aisle. “We want Utah to be a place where everyone feels like they belong, including, and especially our new refugees that are coming from a very, very difficult situation.”

The spouses of Utah’s legislators were invited to accompany the Afghan arrivals to help them navigate an unfamiliar American grocery store. Once again, Nazifa was stressed because very few translators were on hand to help. She ended up running from aisle to aisle, helping everyone communicate their stories to the dignitaries while they filled their grocery carts. 

But what started as a kind gesture and a photo op, turned emotional in the canned foods aisle. Standing amongst the kidney beans and macaroni, an Afghan woman loading her shopping cart started sobbing.

“She’s crying because she’s able to get food here, and her kids are hungry,” Nazifa translated. She explained that the woman had three children left behind in Afghanistan, and her 13-year-old daughter had been forced into marriage.

“I’m so sorry. That breaks my heart,” Governor Cox said. “We’re glad you’re here with us. We hope you feel safe here.” The First Lady reached out and hugged her, while the wife of a state senator wiped away tears. Then Cox added, “We’ll pray for your little ones.” 

The tragic details they shared during that shopping trip turned a feel-good media moment into something else, something more real. This woman had the chance to share her pain with the most powerful man in the state, and yet, even he couldn’t do anything more than offer her comfort and prayers. 

But even as solutions eluded the state’s most powerful, people like Jennifer Hua aren’t waiting for answers. For Hua, being there for our newest neighbors is not just about bringing food in an emergency. It’s about connection. When one of her friends was bringing winter clothes to a newly arrived Afghan family, she learned that the mother had lost one of her small children in the crowd at the Kabul airport. 

“She’s here without her four year old, and she just sobbed, and my friend sobbed, and I sobbed when she told me about it,” Hua said. “That connection that they made, that woman needed that! They don’t just need clothes. That’s kind of easy, actually. They don’t just need food. That also is easy, once it’s organized. They also need friends and someone to say ‘Oh my goodness’, and put their arms around you and let you cry. And then help you navigate the kind of scary situation of needing to find a job and needing to get an education in a foreign country.”

Just two days after the grocery store event with Utah’s First Family, another global crisis dominated the headlines. Russia invaded Ukraine and another flood of people would be displaced from their home country.

“There was all this media hype when evacuation happened,” Nazifa said. “Everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what happened in Afghanistan?’ And a few months later, nobody cared about Afghanistan.”

But while public attention for Afghanistan and the more than 80,000 Afghans living in US communities dissipated, Hua was undeterred. 

“It’s easy to see all of the bad news and become numb,” Hua said, but rather than getting discouraged, she’s energized when she spends time with her newest friends from Afghanistan. “When you have personal relationships with people who are in such a dramatic plight, you just feel this urgency to do something. Ukraine, of course, is very much a similar situation. It’s so dramatically difficult. I say let’s take a look at our system and get it in fine working order,  because if we all work together, we could really make a big difference.” 

As “Stranger Becomes Neighbor” continues, people like Hua will attempt some creative solutions and others will pursue political action to address the deepest concerns of their new friends and neighbors. 

Season 1: “Afghan Arrivals” is available at or wherever you listen to podcasts. New episodes are published every Tuesday.

Sisterhood of Embroidery and Artillery

By Andrea Smardon

Women in the Female Tactical Platoon train to work with U.S. Special Forces (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Douglas Ellis/Released)

When the taxi abruptly stopped in traffic, the 25-year-old woman tried not to look at the heavily-armed Taliban soldier who approached the passenger window of the car they prayed would carry them to a new life. 

As the soldier questioned her 18-year-old nephew, she kept her gaze down, only sneaking a nervous glance at her mother and toddler son, who were squeezed into the backseat of the taxi next to her. She was terrified they wouldn’t make it to the Kabul International Airport by sunrise, terrified they’d miss their flight to safety, and terrified that if these men figured out who she was, they’d all pay a brutal price for her choices. 

This woman, whose face was partially concealed with a head scarf, was an elite soldier working with the US Army’s Special Forces. Raised in a country where women and girls risk being killed just for going to school, she was a special operator who repelled out of helicopters, carried an M4 carbine and actively fought to undermine the Taliban.  

As the U.S. withdrew the last of its military forces in August of 2021, this woman and thousands like her, had no choice but to abandon their homes or risk prison or death for helping the Americans during the two-decade war. 

Her name is Sima. She does not use her last name because she fears what the Taliban might do to the members of her family who still live in Afghanistan if they learn her identity. She proudly served in the Afghan Army for six years, part of an elite unit called the Female Tactical Platoon that assisted on combat missions and night raids with the US Army Special Forces, though she kept it a secret – even from her friends and neighbors. Her husband – who also worked in the military with Americans – was killed by an explosive device while on duty during Afghan elections in 2019. He never met their son. 

Sima endured several days of tear gas, guns fired in the air, and crushing crowds at the Kabul airport, but when she finally boarded the plane that would take her and her son to safety, she felt only loss. 

“When I left Afghanistan, I was very sad, unlike many who were happy,” Sima said through a translator. She fought for a better country. She did not want to abandon it. 

Sima is one of 43 Afghan women from the Female Tactical Platoon now living among us in the U.S. But as the podcast “Stranger Becomes Neighbor” uncovers, getting on that plane two years ago wasn’t the end of her struggle.

A framed photo shows Sima with her husband, who she met while serving in the military. He was killed on duty during Afghan elections.

Help from Afar

When Sima, her nephew and son were dropped off by a caseworker at a hotel room on the edge of a strip mall in a suburb of Salt Lake City, it was late at night and they were hungry. They weren’t sure where they could find food. But then, there was a knock on the door, and a man handed them a meal cooked by a nearby Indian restaurant. Someone was looking out for Sima from afar. 

That person was a 27-year-old woman in Georgia named Becca Moss. She was 2000 miles away, but the two women had been texting and she knew Sima could use some nourishment, so she placed the order for Indian food. 

Moss had worked with Sima in Kabul, training new Afghan recruits. She was a member of the Cultural Support Team (CST), an army unit of American women who worked closely with their Afghan counterparts from the Female Tactical Platoon and U.S. Special Forces. 

“The military is a family, no matter how you spin it,” Moss said. “They serve side by side doing the same things.” When the Afghan women first arrived in the U.S., Moss and the other CST’s formed an organization called Sisters of Service. Their mission was to help their fellow soldiers rebuild their lives in America. Knowing everything that Sima had sacrificed to serve alongside the U.S. military, Moss felt a responsibility to make sure that she felt supported. 

“I think we owe them a lot,” Moss said. “These women literally are an anomaly. They’re from Afghanistan, against all odds, joined the military, joined the Special Forces, and then fought for their freedom alongside US soldiers, which is more than 99% of Americans can say. I think they’ve sacrificed a lot more for America than most Americans.”

But Moss wasn’t sure if she would be able to meet Sima’s needs from so far away.

“It was a little bit of a concern because I knew nothing,” Moss said. “I know there’s a lot of Mormons out there. That’s all I know about Salt Lake City!” She immediately contacted the resettlement agency responsible for Sima. “I’m her friend,” she told her case worker. “I’m just trying to make sure she’s okay. I’m not gonna leave you alone, so you might as well just accept that I’m gonna be in your life.” 

Moss found a woman living in Salt Lake City who volunteered to babysit Sima’s son so she could attend English classes. Another local volunteer also helped her move into an apartment, furnish it, find rugs, and buy her shoes for the winter. With the support of the community, Sima enrolled her son in daycare, got her driver’s permit, and started a job working part time as a cashier at Walmart, but she was worried about the day when government funds would stop paying her rent.

“I’m worried about how to survive with that money that I’m making,” Sima said through a translator, as she began to cry. She did not make enough money to pay her expenses, let alone send money home to her family in Afghanistan living in hiding from the Taliban because of Sima’s alliance with Americans.

On top of her financial concerns, she was stressed about her legal status in the U.S. Like most of the Afghans who were evacuated in a rush in 2021, she arrived as a humanitarian parolee, a temporary status that allowed her to legally live in the U.S. for two years. She did not know what her future would hold if she was not granted asylum within that time frame. 

Dabbing at her eyes with her headscarf, she said it helps to talk with some of the new friends she’s made in the community or with members of the Sisters of Service who understand what she’s going through. 

“They don’t want to be a charity case,” Moss said. “They want to be a strong individual like they were in Afghanistan.” 

Sima makes a meal for Becca Moss of Sisters of Service when she visits her new home in Salt Lake City. (Photo courtesy Becca Moss)

Staying true to the principles they internalized in the US military, Moss and the Sisters of Service have refused to leave anyone behind. But everything they’ve done for their Afghan sisters has been voluntary, outside their regular jobs and life responsibilities. There are limits to what they can do, and they’ve learned from experience that they have to spread the weight if they’re going to be able to continue. They alone cannot provide all the elements of a community. 

“I think it’s really sad to see people not have enough resources initially, but the community has been really great,” Moss said, speaking about Sima’s new friends in Utah. “That’s what people need is somebody who’s consistently showing up in their life.”

Over the course of two years, Sima shares her struggle to make a life in the U.S. in the podcast, “Stranger Becomes Neighbor”. The evacuation from Afghanistan is just the beginning of a story that is still developing. To this day, Sima’s status in the United States remains uncertain. 

Season 1: “Afghan Arrivals” is available at or wherever you listen to podcasts. New episodes are published every Tuesday.

A Personal Connection

By Andrea Smardon

Ward LDS Relief Society president Kerry Wickman talks with a 6 year-old Afghan girl near her apartment in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 27, 2023. Their identities are not shown to protect them from the Taliban.

16-year-old Baran and her older sister woke up in their new home in Salt Lake City thinking they needed to find help. It was winter, their power was out, the heat wasn’t working, their 4-year-old niece didn’t have warm clothes, and they had no phone – no way to reach anyone. 

That morning, they ventured out onto the snowy walkway connecting the apartments to try talking to neighbors in the complex.

“When we go outside, we see that there is an Afghan family and they say to each other ‘goodbye’ in our language,” Baran said. Luckily, she was able to communicate with her neighbors. The neighbors contacted a leader in the community who had been helping the new arrivals – Nazifa, a refugee who fled Afghanistan in the late nineties after her father was killed by the Taliban. She did not want her last name used because she still has family in Afghanistan who could be at risk. 

“I know how hard it is to settle here,” Nazifa said. “I have family in Afghanistan that are stuck there, and I know how they feel about it. So we’re just here to make life easier for them, at least for the next two or three months.”

The next day, Nazifa came to visit Baran and her family, took them grocery shopping and helped them figure out how to get the power turned on in their apartment. But as Nazifa started tracking down the new arrivals in hotel rooms and apartments, she realized it was more than she could do on her own. Through word of mouth and organizing events, she and others started building up a network of volunteers to spread out the work. It was through this network that a neighbor named Kerry Wickman met Baran and her family. 

“I met them, fell in love with them instantly,” Wickman said.

Wickman, who is a social worker and a Relief Society president in her Latter-day Saint ward, decided to do what overtaxed agencies couldn’t do. She took Baran to get enrolled in the local public high school, helped the older sister get a job at a daycare center, drove them to appointments, and collected money for things they need in the U.S. and to send home for their family back in Afghanistan.

“They’re like family, so I just do the things I would do for my family,” Wickman said. “They fill my heart every day I’m with them. I come home and my husband says, ‘You’re glowing.'”

“If Kerry was not here, we couldn’t do anything,” Baran said. “She’s our mom, both my mom and my best friend.”

It was not clear what Wickman could do, though, about the fact that their 4-year-old niece was here without her parents. When an airplane flew over their apartment in Salt Lake City, the young girl mistakenly believed her parents were finally coming for her.

“My mom and my dad are coming home,” she told her aunts. “Let’s go to the airport.”

“I think that she — not understanding what happened — believes that they abandoned her,” Wickman said. “I don’t know how you rectify this damage until this family is reunited again.”

Meanwhile, their family back in Afghanistan fled their home and went into hiding because they were afraid of what would happen if the Taliban found them. Baran and her sister worried about their father who had trouble breathing after contracting COVID-19, and needed oxygen. Wickman collected money from her contacts to send back to Afghanistan, but Baran said her father wouldn’t use all the money on himself.

“My father is actually so kind,” Baran said. “In Afghanistan, he said you have to help your neighbors, everybody that you meet, you have to help them.” Baran believes that it is because of her father’s lifetime of generous deeds that Wickman has come into their lives, their honorary mom. “I think God sent Kerry for us,” Baran said, “Every time that we need something, or we are faced with a problem, she comes and helps us.”

What would their lives be like if they never met Kerry Wickman? It’s impossible to know, but there are thousands like Baran, her sister and niece all over the country – maybe in your neighborhood. Their stories are hidden among us. What is our moral obligation to our new neighbors? What kind of a community do we want to be? These are the questions we grapple with on Stranger Becomes Neighbor, as we uncover the stories of our newest neighbors and the ways we are connected. 

Welcome to Your New Home

By Andrea Smardon

Two Afghan sisters, ages 32 and 17, stand with their 6 year-old niece at their apartment in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 27, 2023. Their identities are not shown to protect them from the Taliban.

The stranger escorted the three girls into a dark, cold apartment in a country they only knew through television shows.

For 16-year-old Baran, her 31-year-old sister, and their 4-year-old niece, it did not feel like the refuge they imagined as they fought their way through desperate crowds at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August of 2021.

“The first night that we came to Utah, it was a very horrible situation,” said Baran, who doesn’t use her real name in an effort to protect her family in Afghanistan. “There was no power, no heat and this apartment was dark, completely dark.”

They asked the resettlement agent to come back the next day. Struggling to meet the demands of helping to resettle hundreds of Afghan evacuees in Utah, the caseworker told them he’d return the following week.

Then he left, closing the door on the dark room.

Before escaping Afghanistan, they had never spent a night without their family. In the chaotic crowds at the airport in Kabul, they were separated from their parents who never made it through the gates. They never even got a chance to say goodbye. That night, they huddled under donated blankets in a strange land without a friend.

“If we live here with this kind of situation, I want to come back to Afghanistan,” Baran’s sister told her. They were alone, scared, and so she wondered if it might be better to risk living with the Taliban. At least their family would be together.

It was not the kind of warm welcome that Utah Gov. Spencer Cox probably envisioned when he wrote to President Joe Biden offering Utah as a safe haven for Afghans.

“I’m proud of our state’s heritage, which has shaped our willingness to embrace those in need,” he wrote in an editorial, referring to ancestors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who came to Utah because of religious persecution. “Within minutes of my writing to the president, letters, calls and notes from mayors, business leaders and fellow Utahns from all walks of life began flooding in, expressing support and offering to help.”

It wasn’t just Utah. Across the country, there was widespread support for Afghan evacuees. In a poll shortly after the evacuation, seven out of 10 Americans said they supported resettling Afghans who worked with the U.S. government or military.

America promised to be a welcoming nation for our Afghan allies, but how well did we deliver on that promise? Over the course of a two-year investigation, the Stranger Becomes Neighbor podcast follows the experience of Afghan arrivals and the people who try to help them. What happens for Baran and thousands of others like her depends in part on their neighbors.

But what can one person do in the face of an international disaster decades in the making?

‘This is a big challenge’

About 80,000 Afghans arrived in a very short time frame — the biggest war-time influx the U.S. had seen since the fall of Saigon. And they came during a pandemic, a severe shortage of affordable housing and at a time when the resettlement agencies had been reduced to almost nothing. By the end of President Donald Trump’s term, refugee admissions were slashed to 15,000, from 85,000 in the last year of the previous administration. With the reduced number of refugees coming to the U.S., resettlement organizations were decimated, staff laid off and offices closed.

“The whole program, basically, was shut down,” said Aden Batar of Catholic Community Services. “The infrastructure of the program was destroyed, pretty much.”

The two main resettlement agencies in Utah — Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee — were left with a handful of staff to handle hundreds of expected arrivals. Agencies across the country were just starting to rebuild when Kabul fell, and Afghans started arriving in our communities.

“This is a big challenge,” Batar said. “When the families are arriving they need a lot of support. These folks need friends in order for them to be successfully integrated into our community.”

Given the challenging situation, case workers could not spend as much time as they normally would have with people like 16-year-old Baran and her family. So the experience of the new arrivals often depended on volunteers and neighbors to fill in the gaps.

It’s been two years since the harrowing U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, and there are stories like Baran’s playing out across the country, maybe in your neighborhood. In the house next door or the apartment downstairs, people could be trying to rebuild their lives. Many remain without family members, without jobs, and without the certainty of what their future in this country will be.

Who will help Baran and her family? We’ll find out in the next episode of Stranger Becomes Neighbor.