SALT LAKE CITY – Afghan refugee Mahmood Amiri arrived in the United States more than a month ago, but his children are still waiting for their first day at school. They have yet to go to a mosque to meet other Muslim families. And Amiri is itching to get a job, but nobody knows how long that will take in a crashing economy.
Starting a new life in America is never easy for refugees, but doing it during a pandemic has created more struggles, especially after the federal government cut off funding to help them resettle and suspended new arrivals indefinitely.
Coronavirus restrictions have affected refugee families in the same ways as anyone else — job losses, child care challenges — but many are navigating the turmoil in a language they don't fully understand and without extended family or close friends to help.
The Amiris arrived in Salt Lake City on March 24, about a week after states began shutting down schools and businesses to try to stop COVID-19 from spreading. After waiting three years for a visa, they ignored warnings from an airplane employee in Kabul that traveling to the U.S. during the pandemic would be dangerous.
Amiri, his wife and their four children were the only ones on their final flight from Seattle to Salt Lake City. For them, it was worth the risk. While waiting for a special visa for Afghans and Iraqis who help the U.S. government, Amiri had feared that the Taliban would find out he worked for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and kidnap his family.
“I knew the situation was very bad, but I had to decide for the (good) of my family,” Amiri, 39, said of the pandemic. “If my visa expired, they would not extend it.”
Refugee aid organizations have pivoted from training families for work and school to teaching them how to apply for unemployment benefits and do schoolwork online. They’re dipping into emergency funds to pay for rent and food for families after losing federal dollars.
“We’re instructing clients on how to navigate a food bank rather than navigating a career path,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.