While a unified effort to resettle 1,800 Afghans in Oklahoma has been a “monumental achievement,” major challenges persist for these newcomers adjusting to a new culture and way of life.
This was the prevailing sentiment of nonprofit leaders, veterans and volunteer sponsors of Afghan refugee families as they met on Tuesday for an interim study on the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program requested by Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City. The group identified several ongoing challenges for Afghans living in Oklahoma, including lack of affordable, safe housing, language barriers, transportation and the continued need for assistance obtaining necessary documents.
The Afghans “stood shoulder to shoulder with us,” military veteran Kerri Keck said Tuesday. “These same people are asking for our continued help. They didn’t come here asking for a handout. They came here for an opportunity.”
The conversation surrounding Afghan resettlement was particularly poignant, falling as it did on the second anniversary of the fall of the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government and the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, on Aug. 15, 2021. The United States completed its withdrawal of troops on Aug. 30, 2021.
Hicks said she requested the study because she realized that there were resettlement issues that needed to be discussed now that many families that fled Afghanistan in 2021 have been in Oklahoma for almost two years.
“The volume of calls and emails that we have received during this last two-year period and trying to help make sure that folks were getting the proper documentation, that they were getting access to health care, just really culminated in kind of saying I think it’s time to do a deep dive,” Hicks said. “What did we do well? What continues to be a pressing concern and where does interagency collaboration make sense so that we can really streamline this process for the families?”
Veronica Laizure, an attorney who serves as deputy director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-OK), coordinated Tuesday’s session at the state Capitol. She gave a series of what she called “nonpolitical, common sense” policy recommendations to address some of the challenges facing Afghans and those trying to help them.
She recommended that some sort of statewide interagency communication network be implemented so that different agencies could communicate with one another to address the ongoing needs of refugees. A statewide portal providing basic information for newcomers also would be helpful, Laizure said. The nonprofit leader also recommended policies be put in place to provide people with access to affordable housing, particularly because “toxic” and “predatory” individuals prey on those of limited means by offering housing with no regard to safety issues.
Laizure said difficulties obtaining driver’s licenses for Afghans was one of the roadblocks the refugees encountered and this affected their ability to find and retain work. She said many of them have no ability to transfer their education or skills certification from Afghanistan to Oklahoma so they have had to take jobs that did not give them opportunities to employ the skills and education they have obtained.
‘Shoulder to shoulder’
Various people who were asked to speak shared their experiences sat around a large boardroom table with Hicks at the head. An overflow room quickly filled with more people interested in the discussion, which was also livestreamed. Besides Laizure, other speakers included Patrick Raglow, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City; Christine and Jeff Poyner, Afghan family sponsors from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Stefani Nachatilo, Oklahoma City Jewish community Afghan resettlement coordinator; Kerri Keck, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan and a CAIR-OK volunteer; Afghan refugee Feroz Bashari; and Kim Bandy, co-founder of the Spero Project.
Each of the speakers acknowledged the unified effort that enabled Afghans to make new homes in Oklahoma. Raglow said one issue that caused difficulties was the lack of perimeters in place for volunteer sponsors who were often unsure where their responsibilities to the Afghans began and ended and what the Catholic Charities case manager would be responsible for. He said this was one of the challenges that came from the fact that Catholic Charities went from resettling about 21 refugees to 1,800 Afghans in an extremely short period of time. He said fortunately, the agency reached out to and received help from other nonprofits such as Spero, in addition to various faith groups and other organizations. Catholic Charities is the only federally authorized resettlement agency in the state.
Keck said she and her husband served as CAIR-OK volunteers helping to distribute items like clothing to Afghan families. She also said she thought the overall experiences of resettling the Afghans was something that could only be achieved by groups working together.
“This has been an extraordinary example of people loving people, of treating others with kindness and respect,” she said. “They (Afghans) sacrificed for our service members and we owe them our diligent and dedicated effort.”
Nachatilo, refugee resettlement coordinator for the Oklahoma City Jewish community, described the efforts to help the Afghans adjust and become acclimated to a new way of life a “monumental achievement.”
“We pray that such a large scare resettlement will never be needed again,” she said.