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University of Colorado Boulder Community Wraps Its Arms Around Afghan Refugees

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In 2020, as the American military announced its imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, former U.S. Army Officer and CU Boulder alum Chris Liggett (MEngl’22) got a call. His Afghan interpreter Matiullah (full name withheld), with whom he worked closely during his deployment in 2014, needed his help. Having continued to work with the U.S. military, Matiullah was concerned for the safety of his family and asked Liggett to help them leave the country. “I knew I could help Matiullah,” said Liggett. “There are issues and people in need where I can’t do as much to help, but I could do something here. I knew I had the skills, and it wasn’t an option to turn away.”

It took a year to get Matiullah a special immigration visa, but he and his family were able to flee just as the Taliban began taking control of Afghan provinces in 2021. Although the U.S. government wanted to settle Matiullah’s family in Washington State, Liggett advocated for them to come to Boulder so he could provide support through their transition. “I realized that if I wanted to get Matiullah to Colorado, I would need to do it myself,” said Liggett, “so I reached out to everyone I knew in Boulder and people donated their United flight miles.”

The Boulder community sprang into action to help Matiullah’s family. Boulder County Human Services assisted them as they navigated the process of obtaining health services, counseling, and other basic needs. After Liggett reached out to his Facebook community for help finding housing, a Boulder resident offered up her house in Lafayette and helped enroll his children in Boulder Valley schools. Elsewhere, Joe Neguse’s congressional office helped get Matiullah a Social Security number so he could start working.

The outpouring of support continued in the weeks to come, despite some initial hesitation from the community at large. “At first, a lot of people thought, ‘No, don’t bring people to Boulder,’” explained Liggett. “‘There are more Afghans in Denver, so they should resettle there,’ but resources in Denver are tapped out. There are lots of Boulder community members with resources and a desire to help.”

As Liggett worked to find resources to support Matiullah and his family, he also found like-minded citizens and organizations in the Boulder area who were all interested in or were already doing similar work for other Afghan families. Local religious organizations like Cornerstone Church and Congregation Har HaShem sponsored Afghan families and had church-owned rental homes to offer. Sister Carmen Community Center has provided on-going assistance as well.

A grassroots volunteer network in Boulder led by Liggett, which now goes by the name Task Force Boulder, was formed to ultimately support ten Afghan families. The organization’s nod to the military is fitting, as Liggett leveraged his experience in logistics to marshal the various efforts. “We started meeting regularly and organizing ourselves because so much was happening,” said Liggett. “We were all doing the same thing, but at different times. It was helpful and important to share information and lessons learned.”

The International English Center Supports
Afghan student receiving ESL instruction from teacher.Once the immediate needs of housing, food, clothing, and documentation were secured for the families, Task Force Boulder turned its attention to the next step in resettlement: English language instruction.

Through a series of connections at CU Boulder, Task Force Boulder contacted Ruth Moore, Director of International English Center (IEC), Division of Continuing Education in early 2022. The IEC provides English language instruction and cultural enrichment primarily to students, staff, and faculty at CU Boulder to support university studies or career advancement. Part of its mission is to offer learning opportunities to the larger Boulder community, which now included the Afghans and their families.

“When we were first approached by Task Force Boulder,” said Moore, “we advocated for getting both the Afghan men and women in English language instruction as soon as possible because language is crucial to all the other parts of life including work, making appointments, shopping, and riding in public transportation. The IEC got involved because there wasn’t another organization at that time that could provide English as a second language instruction to them.”

From April to August 2022, the IEC’s Afghan English Program offered language courses for Afghan men and women, funded through a grant from the Colorado Refugee Services Program. Since most of the participants arrived with limited English skills – and some with no literacy in their first language – instruction focused on letters and numbers, grammar basics, and useful phrases. The Jewish Community Center provided a space for the class, which, beyond language instruction, offered the men and women an opportunity to connect with others in their community, often across Afghan cultures. To further support their education, Task Force Boulder organized childcare so that mothers could study without interruption but still within easy reach of their little ones. The English lessons have been especially inspirational for the Afghan women. Among many new-found freedoms, they have expressed deep gratitude for their freedom to study and learn.

While most of the new arrivals studied basic English, the IEC provided Matiullah (as well as his brother, Asif) with an ongoing scholarship to study in its Intensive English Program, which focuses on language for academic and professional purposes. As Matiullah has continued to sharpen his English skills, he is also taking classes in coding and has received funding to attend a software engineering bootcamp next year. “We have lots of opportunities in the U.S., so it’s important to work hard to get results,” said Matiullah. Although the first year in the U.S. has posed challenges, Matiullah and his family are thriving, especially after welcoming a new baby boy, born in August 2022.

As for the other families, the journey to becoming settled in their new home continues. However, they are not alone. Task Force Boulder has provided each family with a “wrap” team, a small group of volunteers that provides a support system until the families can thrive on their own. With the support of Task Force Boulder’s volunteers, and truly the whole of the Boulder community, the families are now taking steps toward self-sufficiency, belonging, and greater opportunities, embracing an uncertain, but promising road lined with ardent supporters ahead.