Marine major from Steamboat helps resettle Afghan refugees
One Afghan family has already resettled in Steamboat through Operation Allies Welcome
A massive refugee crisis is unfolding with an estimated 2 million people fleeing Ukraine so far, yet it was only August when the refugee emergency in Afghanistan captured many people’s hearts.
Since late summer, the United States has helped tens of thousands of evacuated Afghan citizens relocate through Operation Allies Welcome, an effort to help resettle vulnerable Afghan allies who worked on behalf of the U.S. during the War in Afghanistan.
Steamboat Springs native and U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Bjorn Utu, who is employed as a civil engineer at the city of Steamboat Springs, was part of the military reserve teams activated to help with Operation Allies Welcome at multiple processing bases.
Utu has served in the Marine Corps Reserve since 2015 after four and a half years of active duty.
“It was a pretty awesome opportunity,” Utu said this week. “We were able to close out 20 years of combat with at least something good, which was helping people.”
Utu, 36, worked for three months from November through January at Army National Guard base Fort Pickett in Virginia, where up to 10,000 Afghans lived waiting to find sponsored locations throughout the U.S.
Utu said he remains on active duty in Virginia and will return home at the end of March.
During the operation, the military worked with humanitarian aid groups such as the International Organization for Migration, International Rescue Committee, Samaritan’s Purse and Distribute Aide to help the Afghan families with needs ranging from medical and dental care to visa paperwork, he said.
Utu emphasized that he was speaking to the Steamboat Pilot & Today as a private citizen in hopes that other people might help sponsor refugees. He noted many families have been placed in Colorado Springs and Greeley.
Utu said residents looking to sponsor Afghans in Colorado can contact the community-led resettlement initiative, Sponsor Circles Program, via the website SponsorCircles.org. The program pairs Afghan newcomers with community groups that will provide support.
Routt County couple Valerie Davia and Warren Luce, along with three other residents, established a designated Sponsor Circle and helped one Afghan family of four move to Steamboat in early February. Luce is a Vietnam War veteran who was compelled to help by the plight of the Afghan allies.
“We just felt we had a responsibility to help refugees who were coming out of a war situation,” Davia explained.
Davia said the key need for the relocated family is affordable housing, and she welcomes help by contacting her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Afghan father is well-educated, has a background in information technology, speaks fluent English and is seeking employment. The Afghan couple has two young children.
According to Sponsor Circles, more than 74,000 Afghan newcomers have been welcomed into communities across the U.S. while thousands more are still in need.
Regardless of someone’s location the United States, he or she can welcome an Afghan newcomer and provide them with the practical support they need to get settled by serving as a certified sponsor circle.
Neighbors often will take on tasks like finding initial housing, stocking the pantry, connecting children to school, providing initial income support and helping adults to find employment.
Utu said helping the Afghan children was touching, and nearly half of the Afghans at the base were under age 18.
“The kids will break your heart because they are so cute,” Utu said. “The people are looking forward to integrating into a society that protects individual freedoms and to pursuing their dreams of being successful in America.”
Utu is a father of a 1-year-old daughter with his wife, Shannon King Utu. As a new dad, Bjorn Utu said he can put himself in the Afghan parents’ shoes.
“It puts things into perspective being a young father and imaging the fear and trauma that these families went through escaping the Taliban,” he said. “It’s actually terrifying when you think about it.”
Because his wife is an educator at Steamboat Springs High School, Utu participated in a video chat Q&A with local students during his recent mission. The city engineer worked in problem-solving and coordinating issues at the base operations center.
“It was a pretty awesome experience to allow people a new life and opportunity after the chaos they had just gone through,” Utu said. “At the end of the day, these are just people who were needing our help.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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