A Bright Future for Young Refugees in Utah

The IRC and a Bright Future 

This World Refugee Day, we’re highlighting a unique relationship between one of our oldest nonprofit partners and an incredible group of young, former refugees who are actively working to lift up their community. 

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City provides monthly Cultural Orientation (CO) training to newly arrived refugee adults. The goal is to provide necessary information for refugees to access available services, navigate their local community, learn about broader US society, and to promote cross-cultural understanding while encouraging clients’ positive psychosocial adjustment. 

Since October 2021, the IRC in Salt Lake City has resettled over 600 Afghan evacuees in response to the emergency evacuation in Afghanistan. In response to this increase, IRC’s Education program partnered with the Bright Association of Utah, a non-profit organization run by local Utah college students who are primarily former Afghan refugees. They work to provide a culturally and linguistically appropriate youth-focused CO for all newly arrived Afghan youth ages 15-19. In the youth CO, young Afghan refugees learned about the differences between the US and Afghan secondary education systems, specifically regarding how to graduate from high school in Utah, as well as how to access higher education opportunities like university, community college, and trade school. Together, the Bright Foundation and the IRC in Salt Lake City provided 10 Youth CO workshops, serving 67 newly arrived Afghan refugee young adults from October 2021 to March 2022. 

Leading by Example

In order to understand the true impact that a supportive, welcoming community can have on the life of a refugee or asylee, it’s critical to understand the magnitude of challenges and opportunities each person faces when they are forced to leave their home and start a new life. Every individual is unique, and every journey can inspire new perspectives, foster connections, and strengthen communities.

We are honored to be able to share one such journey with our Cotopaxi community. Abdul Mansoor arrived in Utah in 2015 at the age of 11. To say that what he has accomplished since then is impressive would be an understatement. Among his most inspiring feats is becoming the Vice President of the Bright Association of Utah, and dedicating his free time to helping other newly arrived youth settle into their new lives in a way that only he can. 

The following is an intimate look at his experience leaving Afghanistan, arriving in the US, and the relationships he has made along the way.

Cotopaxi: First off we’d love to learn a little about you as a person. Can you tell us a bit about who you are, where you come from?

Mansoor: My name is Mansoor, and I am 18 years old. Last year, I started my first year of undergraduate years at the University of Utah, studying computer science. I am originally from Afghanistan. I have lived in the United States for about 7 years now. Throughout High School, I took a diverse number of courses related to medicine and tech, which ignited my interest in medicine and computer science. Today, while I am studying computer science, after graduation I plan to go to medical school. I intend to use the potential of computer science, specifically artificial intelligence technologies in healthcare, in the future to bring solutions to current healthcare concerns. 

C: Everyone’s journey is unique. Can you describe how and when you came to live in Utah?

M: Unlike with the alarm of my phone in America, I woke up to the daily singing of the roosters each morning in Kabul, Afghanistan. I remember the days my mother would call me to help pull water from the water well to throw after my father—a ritual done for luck and safety—who just left on a journey for work.

Before settling in Kabul, we migrated to many provinces of Afghanistan such as Badakhshan, Takhar, Nangarhar. My family moved a lot, but to the United States? It felt unusual. My parents explained that the relentless Taliban sent threats to my dad, urging us to have our burial coffins ready in retaliation for him assisting the U.S. Army. Instability in Afghanistan led to many disadvantages, such as the absence of opportunity and security. Still, my parents strived tirelessly to ensure sure we did not feel that those disadvantages anymore, which is what brought us to the United States. 

While on the plane to our new home, I stared at my parents who were deep in thought. I did not realize that I was looking into faces that hid years of sacrifice. My dad looked distressed, yet strong. He smiled, hinting at dreams of a better future for my siblings and me. I wonder now if he knew those hopeful dreams would come with more troubles—day and night seeking to pay off bills, loans, and new liabilities to keep our lives stable. I embrace the disadvantages that my family and I experienced in Afghanistan and use them as an incentive to grow.

Living in Utah or the United States in general was a completely surprising thing for me. As another young kid in Afghanistan who played with marbles outside, or flew kites to pass time on a daily basis, my future was totally unclear. It was hard to imagine becoming a doctor, engineer, or a successful business owner, when it was already difficult to simply get an education in Afghanistan. However, due to continuous sacrifices from my parents, my siblings and I were lucky enough to not only get an education, but do so at a good school. [In Afghanistan] I attended Isteqlal High School, which was a top school supported by the French government. It was a pretty big school, where all grade levels were able to study in one place. The school was even surrounded by an Army Camp. While this all may seem great, it definitely came with many negatives. Our school was a common target for terrorist attacks. It might have been because it was supported by a foreign government or that the army lived there. There were many days we had to skip school because Taliban attacks were expected to happen and happened. That, and the major teacher’s day parties we would have, are the main memories I have of my education in Afghanistan. On the other hand, to allow us a stable life in Afghanistan, my father had a job with the United States Army, and while it put him in so much danger and as a target for the Taliban, he still did it for his family. I remember my father sitting my family down to let us know we would be moving to the United States. He worked with a United State’s commpany at the time, and as the company was facing more and more attacks by the Taliban, the company started to slowly shutdown, while also providing some of its Afghan workers and their families with the opportunity to take refuge in the United States due to dangers of a work history with the United States Army. The process took a long time to complete, and we were told to keep quiet during it all and the even close family members should not know, which makes sense. The application process eventually was completed, and our refuge was planned to the United States in 2016. Our family picked Utah, as we were told it was easier to live here, with the cost of daily necessities being lower and the population being comprised of other refugees and immigrants. 

C: What was the most difficult part about leaving your home?

M: Leaving our home was very difficult in various ways. From deciding that moving would be the right choice, to accepting it, and then starting to live in our new home—it all had its obstacles. Even in Afghanistan, when I was younger, my family would have to travel from one province to another either because of instability in Afghanistan that led to many disadvantages, such as the absence of opportunity and security. It was difficult for my parents to find a job, and when they did, it usually was not in a safe location or a safe job. For that reason, we had to move to multiple cities. Consequently, we had thought that we had moved enough to be able to know how to adapt to a new life situation like that. However, when we moved, it not what we expected at all. I was 12 years old at the time, and at that age I was trying to learn the English language basics and to adapt to a new culture and an unfamiliar system of education—all of that while tackling homesickness. At 12 years old, I had to acclimate to the American life. At 12 years old, I was, in a way, reborn. Our family to had to start all over from scratch in a new home with almost nothing. This led to us having an unstable life made up of having no jobs or income in a completely new place where we did not understand anything. 

On the other hand, we had to leave our family and relatives behind. Here, we had no family or friends. We did not understand the language enough to go out and make friends or find a community of friends to be a part of. It is really important to know people and have people that know you when you are new to a place so that they can give you insight and help you as you try to adapt and make life-changing decisions. Not understanding the language also causes a lot of problems. I remember, daily, my parents would call me to translate the strange documents they had picked up in the mail. It was burdensome. My dad himself worked with the United States Army back in Afghanistan, so I assumed he would understand them, but that was not the case. To learn the language, my siblings and I would try to learn it from school or whenever we saw someone speak it, and our parents worked full time jobs while taking classes. However, finding the time between jobs, classes and caring for family was definitely a burden.

C: What was your sense of life in the US before you arrived?

M: In Afghanistan, the United States, just like any other advanced foreign country, is shown to be a place of no worries or issues. The people are shown to be happy living modern lives without any problems. I have heard this from a few of my other refugee friends as well, so I think anyone outside the country that lives in a developing country feels this way about the United States. For that reason, having the chance to live in such a country is always seen as almost impossible and a very great thing to achieve.

C: What were you most excited about and nervous about?

M: I was not sure how I was feeling at the time. I feel like I was too young to even understand what at all was actually happening. Now, I realize how I did not understand how I would be going away from family and friends forever, or at least for a very long time. Some of those family members I would not get the chance to see again. I did not realize that moving to a new country will put me in such a situation that my own problems become so much that I forget what I am actually missing and what I have lost. I did not realize that I would possibly never see again the people I would talk to, sit with, and eat with on a daily basis. However, even as a kid, knowing that I was moving to America, I was excited to see what it came with.

C: We know that a huge part of feeling safe, secure, and happy in a new situation is the people you interact with and who help shape the community around you. Can you talk a bit about some individuals or organizations that helped you settle in your new home?

M: Moving to a new country causes fear for many things. One of them being failure, which is something that almost never leaves after. Being in a land of full of opportunities, it is scary to think that I might fail. I know this was a fear for my parents, and it is one for me as well. We have a bigger sized family, with about 8 members, it was even more difficult to try and adapt. As soon as we arrived here, the worry about getting a job, learning the language, making money, loneliness, safety, etc.. It was all there. We were scared to fail in any of those ways with any of those things. However, it was thanks to organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and the Catholic Community Services of Utah who would help us through their resources directly or connect us with those that can. We were visited and assisted by great people who were trying to always find ways they can help make the moving process easy. While we did not understand each other's languages, we understood each other through our experiences and human connections. We had people who helped my parents find their very first jobs, helped my siblings and I to get our vaccinations done so that we could enroll in school, helped us find our first place to stay and live in. It was all thanks to such incredible people and organizations that has inspired me to do the same through our organization, Bright Association of Utah. 

Additionally, I have had many individuals throughout my life in America who have mentored me in different aspects of life and my education. I would like to talk about a couple of them from High School. My English teacher at Cottonwood High School, Ms. Merkley, was one of the few people I looked up to in High School. Her course was the first AP class I took for my English requirements and as an English learner, I had always doubted my ability to succeed in anything English language related. I was scared to take her course and then stay in it. However, from the very first day of classes, she was very welcoming and understanding of all her students. She made sure to connect with us all on a more personal level and build trust with us all. She tried to make her class enjoyable no matter how difficult the subjects would be. Eventually, she was one the main reasons I was so motivated and successful during my college applications process. Through her mentorship, I went out of my way to apply to many colleges during high school, including Ivy League universities. Some of the colleges that I remember applying to were University of California - Los Angeles, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego, Harvard University, Northwestern University, University of Utah, and more. I was even accepted to a few of them and waitlisted at great colleges such as Harvard University. While I was not able to attend any of those colleges due to financial reasons, I was still proud of what I went to accomplish as someone who barely even spoke English not too long ago or knew anything about the system of education here in America. Ms. Merkley mentored me throughout the process and help me a lot in every aspect of it. Similarly, my robotics coach, Mr. Perez was another great mentor I had throughout high school. He mentored our robotics team, where I was able to meet many of my closest friends today. Some of those friends today help me ran the Bright Association of Utah today. 

C: One of the things we want people to understand is that contrary to how some view or portray refugees, they have the potential to enrich lives and add so much to the communities they settle in when welcomed with open arms. Can you share any stories about friends or relatives (or your own experience), who have helped strengthen their new community in some way?

M: Over the course of the time I have lived here, I have met with many refugee and immigrant community leaders who use their experiences and knowledge to help make their communities a safe and better place for everyone around them. When I first came here, staring out the window each day, I was eager to go outside. But, it was uncommon to find my peers spending time outdoors, and if I went out, I would be unaccompanied. But this problem vanished when Coach Fayez knocked on our apartment door. He was giving out flyers, inviting kids to the neighborhood soccer team he wished to build. I was so eager that I asked him if I could help him in giving out the flyers.

The neighborhood we moved into when we first arrived in America was not particularly diverse. While there were new immigrants flowing in, they were commonly pushed away because of lack of community engagement, which only furthered the problem. To confront this, Fayez took a chance on an initiative that brought kids in the community together. 

Learning about Fayez as we moved door to door, I got to meet my peers who were as excited as I was to join this team. It was a team that eventually turned into a family for me. Through it, not only was I able to make long-time friends, but I also joined a group of kids that I could share my passion for soccer with.

Fayez’s community soccer team was a push that not merely transformed life for me, but dozens of other youths in the community. A few years later, I took part in organizing summer field days for refugee kids as a project with a goal of having them feel joy and welcome.

C: Specifically, how have the IRC and the Bright Association played a role in your life, and what do you want people to know about their work?

M: The IRC and the Bright Association of Utah (BAU) have played really important roles in my own life, and I am sure the lives of many others. The IRC was one of the first organizations we were connected to who helped simplify the moving process to the United States. From what I have seen, The IRC is definitely a leader at providing vitally needed assistance to those in need. Just like numerous other families, my family arrived to the United States on a random day without any knowledge about life in a completely new country. We did not have anything, we did not know anything, we did not understand anything. However, with the help of such an amazing organization, we were connected to resources and people that helped simplify things for us for years. All this made my family feel a sense of belonging here and give us hope for a better and easier future. Like I have said before, it is thanks to such organizations that my friends and I decided to create our nonprofit called the Bright Association of Utah. Bright is a non-profit organization operated by a diverse group of high school and college students in Utah. Our organization was generally focused on helping students in underserved communities and schools through tutoring, mentoring, and similar college readiness assistance. Now, with the arrival of many Afghan families, and because of the groups’ Afghan backgrounds, BAU is mainly focusing on helping high school and college-aged individuals through its resources. This is important for the organization because the group understands that while the adults in those families might have access to resources to adapt here in the States, their younger ones or children might not. The group finds this to be true because many of its members are also recent refugees to the United States, and have had to go through the process of having to adapt to a new country with many new life experiences. For that reason, the group finds it to be extremely important to act as a helpful resource for high school and college-age Afghans.

Currently, Bright has developed and ran a welding course that allows immigrant and refugee adults who are looking for jobs to enroll in a short welding course where they will be able to get their welding certification and soon get jobs. The BAU has developed a culture and education curriculum that is taught to middle, high school, and college aged immigrants and refugees and the languages that they understand. The curriculum involves lessons on many topics ranging from school system basics of grades, GPA, standardized tests, to how to apply for college, getting a job, internship or create a resume, etc., so far, in English, and the languages that students will understand, such as Dari and Pashto. Over the past few months, Bright has done weekly courses and mentored students from the Utah International Charter School and Cottonwood High School, having mentored dozens of students each week. We also provide one-on-one tutoring for students outside their school timing virtually where our volunteers meet with the students virtually and help them understand their schoolwork or get answers to any other questions they might have. Bright’s volunteers have worked on creating presentation slides on varies topics about the system of education in America and studying different degrees and the careers those degrees lead to. These presentations are provided in multiple languages including English, Dari, and Pashto and the students can access them through our website. This is very helpful because it allows the students to plan their educational careers more carefully, especially when the knowledge and assistance they have about the topics are limited. For example, if a student wants to become a physician or attend medical school, they can easily read about it through our presentations and understand all the requirements of the process so that they make their educational decisions accordingly.

Help Cotopaxi, the IRC in Salt Lake City and the Bright Association of Utah support recently arrived refugees.

Donate to the Cotopaxi Foundation. We’re matching up to $5,000 between June 20th and June 27th.

Learn more about the IRC in Salt Lake City or donate directly.

Check out what the Bright Association of Utah is doing to help young evacuees.