The first group of Afghan refugees to arrive in Oklahoma, a family of seven, flew into Will Rogers World Airport late Wednesday.
Most of the people being resettled are part of approximately 200 families that were rescued from the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma said in a Sept. 8 press release.
“The families in question have assisted our US servicemen and were selected by the US Government to come to the United States,” the faith-based service agency said. “They have been screened and vetted from a health and security perspective.”
A total of 1,850 Afghans are expected to eventually be resettled in Oklahoma, which ranks third among states in the number of evacuees it’s accepting.
On Aug. 18, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a statement saying he would welcome them.
California is taking the largest number of refugees, with 5,225 and Texas is second with 4,481. Washington state and Arizona follow Oklahoma with more than 1,600 each, CBS News reported.
About 1,000 will be settled in the Oklahoma City area and 850 in the Tulsa area. A synagogue in Tulsa has offered to sponsor 50, increasing the total from the original 1,800, Deacon Kevin Sartorius said Monday during a conference call.
Because there wasn’t enough rental housing available in Tulsa to meet the need, CCEOK started looking at smaller cities nearby as options, he explained. Stillwater was selected as one of those locations. The city will become home to about 160 refugees starting in early November.
Bartlesville and McAlester were also considered but there isn’t enough housing available in Bartlesville until “Killers of the Flower Moon” wraps up filming, and McAlester was deemed unsuitable.
Stillwater was a good choice because housing could be found, it has an international community thanks to Oklahoma State University and it has an active Islamic Society that can support the families in continuing to practice their religion and culture, Sartorius said.
Catholic Charities is the designated refugee resettlement agency for Oklahoma. It is coordinating with the U.S. State Department to get them placed in a home and provide services and support as they adjust to life in the U.S.
The refugees are expected to arrive over the next four weeks, but the program could stretch out through March, the CCEOK said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, Oklahoma Chapter is helping Catholic Charities to welcome the Afghans as they arrive in the state.
It was part of an interfaith delegation that met the travelers and provided them with welcome kits containing a copy of the Qur’an, a prayer rug, personal protective equipment and personal hygiene products. They also provided the family with clothing that has been donated by the community.
CAIR Oklahoma has raised more than $10,000 to provide welcome kits and meals for the Afghans.
It’s also recruiting volunteers and soliciting donations to help them as they establish new lives far from home.
“It is an honor to work alongside our partners to serve these new neighbors as they settle in,” CAIR Oklahoma Civil Rights Director Veronica Laizure said. “CAIR Oklahoma is uniquely positioned to help make sure that their transitions are smooth, compassionate, and welcoming, and we are happy to be a part of this historic effort and welcome our Afghan friends to the Oklahoma family.”
Although some of the refugees speak English, communication will be a problem, CCEOK’s coordinator in Stillwater, Mike Fitzgerald, said. Afghan interpreters are hard to find in Oklahoma, which previously hasn’t had a large Afghan population.
Finding more interpreters and organizing English classes will be priorities.
Immediate needs include:
PPE – masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies
Personal hygiene products
Menstrual products and new, unopened underwear
Gently used and operable cell phones, tablets, etc.
Clothing will be needed over the next few weeks as more refugees begin to arrive and furniture will be needed as families are moved out of temporary housing after about a month.
CAIR Oklahoma is also recruiting volunteers to assist in welcoming and providing services. Those needs include:
Volunteers to pack gift bags, sort and catalogue donations, provide transportation and serve on Welcome Committees.
Specialized volunteers like doctors, nurses and clinicians to serve uninsured patients; attorneys and law students to help with immigration services; educators to provide English as a Second Language instruction; counselors to provide trauma-informed and culturally-informed care; property owners with single family homes, apartments or duplexes for rent and churches or community centers with large spaces for community use and buses or vans.
Anyone interested in helping should email Civil Rights Director Veronica Laizuer at vLaizure@cair.com. More more information about how you can help can also be found at cairoklahoma.com/afghan-refugees/, cceok.org/refugees or catholiccharitiesok.org.
CAIR Oklahoma Executive Director Adam Soltani had one more request as Oklahoma’s newest residents begin the long process of building new lives.
“You can also pray,” he said. “Keep these people in your thoughts and prayers.”