Oklahoma was preparing for 1,800 Afghan refugees. Jeff and Christine Poyner were eager to help.
The Yukon residents saw news reports stating that nonprofits leading the resettlement needed volunteers and wasted no time finding out how they could contribute.
The moment they contacted Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and agreed to help an Afghan family of 11 locate housing, access healthcare, obtain driver’s licenses and enroll their children in school, they didn’t know they’d signed up for a front-row seat to a display of systemic inequities in Oklahoma that plague vulnerable, low-income families across the state. It was a display they would be called on to testify about two years later during a review of the resettlement operation by state lawmakers.
“When we first met the Mamond family at the airport, they’re a large family, so we broke them up into two cars and took them to the hotel,” Poyner said. “We noticed they didn’t have very many belongings. Come to find out their luggage was misplaced in Qatar, one of the countries on the way here.”
The first order of business was to take the family to Walmart and buy them clothes. Each family member got two outfits, underwear and socks. They asked where hijabs and the rest of the traditional Islamic clothing items were in the sea of colorful racks before them.
As sponsors, or Oklahomans who volunteered to help one or more Afghan families find a home and furnish it on their own dime or with donations, the Poyners chose to walk along the path of a revelatory journey that encompassed much more frustration, heartache and selflessness than what Catholic Charities first led them to expect.
After three months of living in a hotel with hundreds of other Afghan refugees, the Mamonds, with the help of the Poyners and pandemic rent and utility assistance, moved into a three-bedroom apartment in northwest Oklahoma City’s Lakewood Estates. That day, the Mamonds welcomed a baby girl to their family, which they’d been expecting since before they left home. Instantly, accessing healthcare became a top priority.
Their Catholic Charities caseworkers helped the refugee family enroll in Sooner Care, but getting them to the hospital and the following doctor’s appointments was up to the Poyners.
“Early on there were just a lot of medical appointments,” Poyner said, explaining that beyond maternity care, most of the family needed lots of dental work. “It was nonstop. We were back and forth to the dentist.”
By this time, the Poyners had already agreed to sponsor another family of 11, the Khpalwaks, who were related to the Mamonds by marriage and couldn’t get their SNAP benefits activated. A lack of Social Security Cards and accurate identification documents for family members made it impossible for them to qualify, Poyner said.
Between doctor’s appointments, trips to food banks and social welfare and nonprofit offices, it wasn’t long before the Poyners realized that those capable of driving in each family would need to get their driver’s licenses. Not only would they be able to get themselves around the city, but they would have state identification cards that facilitate the attainment of some forms of government assistance. With that need, another challenge arose: driver’s license tests in Oklahoma can only be taken in English, which most Afghan refugees don’t speak well enough to converse, much less take a written exam.
At the same time, the families were hoping to enroll their children in school, which was also complicated by identification document issues and the fact that the leases for the apartments were under Catholic Charities. The Mamonds, Khpalwaks and the 13 other families that eventually landed at Lakewood Estates didn’t technically have their own residences, so couldn’t prove they lived in the school district.
These and other issues came to light during a review of the resettlement operation by Sen. Carri Hicks and lawmakers in the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Aug. 15. The aim of the interim study was to find out where the process of welcoming Afghans into Oklahoma was a success, where it failed, and what can be done to ensure future refugees who land here experience a smoother transition into American life.
More than 50 people consisting of faith group members, sponsors of Afghan families and other stakeholders crowded the committee meeting room to listen to the presentation on resettlement efforts by leadership of Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City, The Spero Project and the Council on American-Islamic Relations Oklahoma Chapter. Two volunteer sponsors — the Poyners and Stefani Nachalito, a representative for the Jewish community — also shared their experiences aiding Afghan families.
The study revealed how existing inequities in Oklahoma related to housing, employment and means of accessing government assistance programs exacerbated the challenges of resettling Afghans when they began arriving in September 2021.
The primary issue raised by speakers was the lack of livable and affordable housing. Patrick Raglow is the executive director of Catholic Charities Oklahoma City, the state’s only federally designated refugee resettlement agency.
He said Afghan refugees, because of their large number and the frequency of their arrivals, faced immediate housing crises when they touched down at Will Rogers and Tulsa International Airports.
“There was not enough housing then, and there is still not enough housing, and the quality of that housing that is available is not worthy,” Raglow said.
The solution was to help Afghans apply for federal pandemic emergency rent and utility assistance and use some of that money to pay local hotels to house them.
The average length of stay in hotels for families was five months, Raglow said, and once families did start finding apartments and homes to live in, most of the places were too small, poorly maintained, pest infested and prone to sewage back-ups and unreliable air conditioning.
For those living conditions, families paid $750 to $3,500 per month for one- to three-bedroom apartments or homes.
While Afghans were struggling to find homes, Oklahomans across the state were losing theirs.
More than 80,000 Oklahomans across the state needed rental and utility assistance over the course of the pandemic, and many were being evicted from their homes as they waited for help. With housing assistance only being available for up to 15 months, including back-payments for missed bills, many Afghans face the same fate today because they can’t afford to sustain themselves and their families with one or two incomes of $15 an hour.
“Our most pressing ongoing concerns are the cost of housing exacerbated by the large sizes of families and the fact that many are one-income families with no assistance,” Nachalito, who helps coordinate refugee assistance for the Jewish community, said.
“There is simply no way for our families to provide housing for themselves,” she said.
Members of the Temple B’nai Israel, Emanuel Synagogue, Jewish Federation and other Jewish groups sponsored 12 refugee families — a total of 67 people.
Two other issues raised were the need for the state to facilitate the obtainment of state identification documents like driver’s licenses and birth certificates and recognize the professional certifications held by refugees who are educated and worked in their home country as interpreters, nurses, doctors and engineers, and other jobs.
Over the course of six months, the Poyners helped more than 50 Afghan fathers get their driver’s licenses and 75 children enroll in Putnam City Schools.
“It started with the two families that we sponsor,” Poyner said, “But within this community, once the word gets out about something, it spreads very quickly.”
He said he discovered that in Oklahoma there is a way to bypass the written driver’s test if a person takes a 10-hour class and participates in 6 hours of hands-on training. Poyner reached out to a local driving school asking if they would provide the course if he could find someone to translate the material.
“They said their only requirement is to hit at least 10 people in the class,” he said. “We partnered with The Spero Project who provided translators and ended up hitting 20 in the first class and then 25 in the second, and then subsequent smaller classes.”
Poyner would not only drop the men off at driving school, but also take them to Department of Public Safety offices to get their permits, sometimes waiting for hours.
The Spero Project is a nonprofit that fosters a long-term sense of community for refugees who arrive in Oklahoma. Kim Bandy, the organization’s director, focused part of her presentation on the plethora of professional certifications held by Afghans that are not recognized by the state.
“Many of our neighbors have come with professional experience that we believe could and should transfer into the city and be recognized and leveraged,” Bandy said, as she showed a slide listing more than 40 examples of degrees — from bachelors to doctorates — and previous work experiences held by Afghans.
Veronica Laizure, an attorney who serves as Council on American-Islamic Relations deputy director, said many of the professional skills and experiences Afghans brought to Oklahoma could bolster the state workforce.
“Without the ability to transfer that education here into Oklahoma, they’re instead forced into these low-wage jobs that aren’t sufficient for their needs,” Laizure said.
The problem for Afghans is exacerbated by the fact that many of them left their homes with nothing but their families in tow, and are living here on humanitarian parole, a temporary immigration status that will expire Sept. 30, she said. They arrived with No IDs, no certificates, no bags, no proof that they planned on leaving their home, just in case they were stopped by the Taliban during their escape.
Laizure provided policy recommendations to lawmakers in the Veterans and Military Affairs committee. They include ensuring the availability of quality affordable housing and better protections for tenants, a better system for cooperation between charitable organizations, the state and the federal government and facilitating the obtainment of state identification documents and professional certificates, while also recognizing them from other countries, such as Afghanistan.
“The charitable sector can’t do everything,” Laizure said. “We can’t build housing, we can’t change the driver’s test, and we can’t make state welfare benefits available to the newcomers who need it.”
Laizure suggested the state construct a website she described as a state bank of resources that contains information about navigating housing, healthcare and employment in the state. The resource should be available to all Oklahomans, she said.
“We think that some common-sense policies at the state level could help alleviate these concerns, not only for our current Afghan families, not only for any future refugees who might find their way to Oklahoma, but for all struggling and marginalized and vulnerable Oklahomans who are also experiencing so many of these challenges,” Laizure said.
But in order for any changes to state law that would benefit refugees and other vulnerable Oklahomans to occur, there needs to exist the political will in lawmakers to write the legislation and fight for it in the House and Senate chambers of the Capitol. Patrick Raglow said he is under no illusions that will happen.
“There are some things we can do as the state of Oklahoma, and anytime you can increase understanding, that’s always good,” Raglow said. “I don’t mean to be too cynical, but the fact is this isn’t the first time Oklahoma’s legislature has heard about the challenges in affordable housing or the quality of housing. We’ve had that conversation going back since before I started this work in the city.
“Will this study make the legislature fix everything?” Raglow said. “No. Will it advance what needs to be done? Yes, I think so.”
Ed. Note: This story was updated on 8/22/2023 to correct the spelling of Jeff and Christine Poyner’s surname.
Lionel Ramos is a Report for America corps member who covers race and equity issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at 405-905-9953 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LionelRamos_.