These Afghan pilots’ hearts belong in the sky. Idahoans can help them soar. - East Idaho News
Supporting refugees

These Afghan pilots’ hearts belong in the sky. Idahoans can help them soar.

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Editor’s note: The following is an opinion column from former Idaho Attorney General and supreme court justice Jim Jones. It was originally published by the Idaho Capital Sun. reporter Rett Nelson provided additional sidebar content.

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021, Afghan aviators were ordered to fly their aircraft out of the country to keep them from falling into enemy hands. Over 300 pilots flew to surrounding countries, most of them having to leave their families behind.

Many of those pilots have been resettled in the U.S., including 14 who now live in Idaho. ( did an in-depth story about three of the pilots living in eastern Idaho earlier this year). They have been working multiple jobs to support themselves and their families back home. They would do much better if they could put their aviation skills to work.

Even though the Afghans received rigorous flight training from U.S. and NATO forces and have flown thousands of hours, they must complete extensive ground and flight courses to qualify for aviation jobs in the United States.

That’s where Russ Stromberg, a retired Marine aviator, and Global Talent, a Boise nonprofit that helps refugees meet stateside licensing requirements for their occupational specialty, came together to provide a solution. The two have pioneered a project to help the Afghan pilots obtain the credentials to fly commercially in the U.S.

A dramatic upgrade in pay will help the pilots get their families to America that much sooner. Bringing the pilots on line will help alleviate the nation’s unprecedented pilot shortage.

The first group of five pilots has been selected for the training program, which is contingent on Global Talent achieving its fundraising goal of $40,000. The pilots are enthusiastic about their prospects. One of them stated it this way: “Your heart belongs to the sky. You have to go back to the sky and serve.” Idahoans can help these pilots soar by supporting the program.

It should be mentioned that Afghan pilots were some of our most committed allies in the Afghan conflict. In addition to the dangers they faced in the air, they became Taliban assassination targets in their homes. The United States is honor bound to provide safe haven to them and to the thousands of other Afghans who put themselves and their families at risk by partnering with and protecting U.S. troops.

Idahoans can help in that regard by urging our Congressional delegation to support the bi-partisan Afghan Adjustment Act (HR 4627 in the House and S. 2327 in the Senate). The legislation would provide a pathway to permanent residency for Afghans who only have temporary residence now and create pathways for continued relocation of those, like the pilots’ families, who were left behind. The legislation is strongly supported by a broad coalition of veteran, religious, business and legal organizations. Idaho’s entire delegation needs to add its support.

Idaho has an outstanding resettlement program that has taken in an increasing number of Afghan refugees since the national refugee program was restored to health two years ago. Of the 1,270 refugees who arrived in fiscal year 2022 (ending on Sept. 30), there were 512 Afghans. So far in fiscal year 2023, there are 120 Afghans among the 933 arrivals. The Idaho Office for Refugees oversees refugee resettlement in Idaho. Three resettlement agencies perform the hands-on work — the Agency for New Americans and the International Rescue Committee, both of which are in Boise, and the CSI Refugee Center in Twin Falls.

Each agency relies heavily on citizen involvement and can put community members to work welcoming and settling refugees, sponsoring events, helping find housing, providing cultural adjustment, supporting language programs and generally making newcomers feel at home in their new foreign setting.

RELATED | Local couple rescued 3 Afghan refugees, and how one of them is adapting to life in eastern Idaho

Idaho’s refugee program is a demonstration that even in these contentious times we can come together to do important work, like helping beleaguered folks from other countries. The time, commitment and resources that Russ Stromberg has devoted toward training our Afghan pilot allies for new employment opportunities in America is a feel-good story for the times. And a gracious welcome for our Afghan friends who yearn to get back in the sky.

Najib Amani was a fixed-wing pilot of a PC-12 aircraft in Afghanistan’s Special Mission Wing for six years, according to information provided by the Idaho Office for Refugees. Now an immigration legal assistant, he lives in Boise, Idaho, and dreams of flying again one day. | (Courtesy of the Idaho Office for Refugees)