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Westminster community works to aid Afghan refugees

Westminster students enjoy a meal from Vertical Diner while also supporting Obaid Barakzai’s fundraiser Aug. 30. Barakzai held a fundraiser at Vertical Diner to raise money that would help get his family out of Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Lucas Arico. 

The Westminster Rotaract Club and Dumke Center for Civic Engagement are raising funds to help Afghans seeking refuge in other countries after the recent Taliban takeover. 

The challenges to leave Afghanistan are having a huge impact on at least one member of the Westminster College community who is working from Salt Lake City to help his family escape.

Senior international political economy major Obaid Barakzai is from Kabul, Afghanistan, and wrote in an Instagram post Aug. 27 about his efforts to get his family out of Afghanistan.

“Many of you won’t truly understand and feel what I’m going through as an Afghan,” Barakzai said. “You will never feel it because you weren’t born and raised in war like myself.” 

Barakzai wrote about how he has lost many loved ones to war including two uncles, seven cousins and neighbors.

“But what I do know is that I’m running off the energy of hope,” Barakzai said.

Hope for a peaceful world, hope to see my family after many years, and hope for the sake of having hope.” 

Dumke Center for Civic Engagement 

The Dumke Center for Civic Engagement is planning to host a charity drive to donate items to the International Rescue Committee that would support Afghan refugees, according to Julie Tille, director for civic engagement and experiential learning.

Tille said she hopes the drive occurs later this Fall, ending with the annual Westminster Day of Service in October. Tille said she hopes to work more with the Westminster Rotaract Club.

“If it’s a student organization or another sponsor on campus, we love working together and collaborating,” Tille said.

Tille spearheaded a partnership with Promise South Salt Lake to assist refugees in Salt Lake City. The partnership has grown over the years, which originally started with volunteer student tutors to create Walkways to Westminster.

“[Promise South Salt Lake] is a very local community that has so many amazing learning opportunities for our students,” Tille said.

The partnership, Walkways to Westminster, allows students to tutor and mentor youth from grades six through 12 and encourages first generation and underrepresented students to continue their education after highschool.

While the Walkways to Westminster program is designed to support student refugees in Salt Lake City, Tille said the Dumke Center for Civic Engagement is in its early stages of planning an event to support Afghan refugees coming to Utah. Roughly 600 Afghans will be resettled in Utah, according to Natalie El-Deiry of the International Rescue Committee Salt Lake City.

The Dumke Center for Civic Engagement provides a space for students to get involved in the Westminster community Sept. 3 in Bassis Student Center. Tille said the center looks forward to working and collaborating with other student organizations. Photo courtesy of Lucas Arico.

Westminster Rotaract Club

The Westminster Rotaract Club is part of an international organization called the Rotary Club. The club is for anyone 18-30 years old and focuses on local and international charity projects, according to Rotaract Club President and senior neuroscience major Jasmine Masih.

“We’re partnering with Salt Lake City of Rotaract […] and giving [Afghan refugees] a nice new start to a new life here. [We’re] giving them essential items, like things we take for granted today,” Masih said.

Other members of the Rotaract Club wanted to take a multifaceted approach to fundraising. Mo Alzouabi, a senior public health major and secretary of the Rotaract club, stressed the importance of grassroots efforts to aid resettlement. 

“When someone is going to restart their life from zero, it helps them a lot when they find a welcoming environment and people who are willing to help,” Alzouabi said. “These small gestures will help them realize, ‘Oh, there is good in the world.’”

Alzouabi is a Legacy Scholar from Syria and got involved with the Rotaract Club after meeting Masih last year.

The club is hosting a Krispy Kreme fundraiser from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31 to help Afghans get the polio vaccine. Funds raised go to End Polio Now, which is dedicated to vaccinating people.

“There are only two countries where polio is left — Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Masih said. “Our goal is to completely eradicate it.”

Masih has been involved in rotary clubs since high school and said she is motivated by wanting to see a change for the better.

“To see ourselves helping all these people is a humbling experience,” Masih said. 

The Rotaract Club plans to partner with the Salt Lake City Rotaract Club to make migration and refugee service kits for Afghan refugees. The club also plans to work with the Catholic Community Services to distribute these kits.

The Catholic Community Services works with resettled refugees and migrants to help them get adjusted to their new country and become fully self-sufficient, according to their website.

A Brief Timeline of the Taliban in Afghanistan

The current refugee crisis is connected to the long efforts of the Taliban to control the region.

The Taliban is known for carrying out public and brutal punishment including mass executions and amputations, according to the New York Times. Though, this is not the first time the Taliban has attacked Afghanistan.

In 1996, most of Afghanistan was under Taliban control. Under their rule, women were unable to attend school and work, and had to hide their faces in public. 

The Taliban lost control in 2001 after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. The restrictions on women were lifted for the next 20 years, but now many Afghans fear the Taliban may take away the progress women made, according to the New York Times.

Westminster associate professor for the Honors College Julie Stewart, who has a Ph.D. in sociology and spent 20 years studying displacement and building communities, expressed the situation and issues Afghan refugees face when trying to leave the country.

“Right now, the demand to leave Afghanistan is overwhelming — neighboring countries are closing their borders because they can’t accommodate people,” Stewart said.

The BBC reports the Taliban has control over all crossing points with Afghanistan’s neighbors. Only those with valid travel documentation can cross the border, according to the BBC.

A Regional Refugee Preparedness and Response Plan suggested about 500,000 Afghan refugees would leave the country by the end of the year, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency brief. Civilians flown out of the Kabul International Airport were sent to countries like Spain, Germany, Qatar and Uzbekistan.

There are many ways for students to get involved, joining the Rotaract Club being one of them, according to Masih. Masih said if students were interested in joining the Rotaract Club they could email her at jrm1013@westminstercollege.edu.

If students want to get involved in another way, Julie Tille suggested students look into the Catholic Community Services and International Rescue Committee to see if there are additional ways to support the Afghan refugees.

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