While it remains uncertain whether Afghan refugees will be sent to Oklahoma, numerous nonprofit and government agencies want to be prepared for their possible arrival.
Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City recently hosted a meeting to discuss some of the projected needs of refugees fleeing Afghanistan if make their way to the state.
Patrick Raglow, Catholic Charities’ executive director, said the gathering, titled “Refugee 101,” was invitation-only because there’s still so much that is unknown about where Afghans seeking refuge eventually will be sent. Some Afghan refugees already have arrived at Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort Lee in Virginia.
“It’s been a very fluid situation, and it is evolving so quickly,” Raglow said.
While Catholic Charities-OKC did not know of any planned Afghan refugee arrivals in the state, Raglow said the recent meeting served as a way to bring like-minded entities together so the organizations could discuss “a common framework” of information about refugee resettlement.
He said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of about nine agencies with refugee resettlement programs. Catholic Charities-OKC operates under the umbrella of the Catholic bishops’ group and specifically under the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
Inviting and welcoming
Kim Bandy, a leader with the Spero Project, said her agency has been a local partner in refugee resettlement for about 13 years.
She said the nonprofit was ready to join efforts to resettle Afghans in the state though “we don’t wish this version of coming to Oklahoma on anyone.”
Bandy told those gathered that there was a difference between inviting refugees to come and welcoming them.
“Our goal is to welcome new neighbors to Oklahoma City,” Bandy said.
“We are translating the difference between inviting someone to Oklahoma and welcoming someone to Oklahoma so Oklahoma can be a place of belonging and not just invitation.”
Bandy said programs are not a good substitute for relationships “and every new neighbor needs a network.”
While the recent meeting was hosted by Catholic Charities, it was held at the United Way of Central Oklahoma. Most of the representatives from various groups attended the gathering virtually while about a dozen participated in person.
Representatives of state agencies and nonprofit organizations participated in the meeting. Besides Bandy, others who shared their input included Bond Payne, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s chief of staff; Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley; Adam Soltani, executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations-Oklahoma chapter; the Rev. Shannon Fleck, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches; and Imad Enchassi, senior imam of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City.
‘Oklahoma’s open embrace’
Raglow said Oklahoma has a good track record of meeting the needs of refugees.
He said the welcome given to Vietnamese families was “one example of Oklahoma’s open embrace of refugees in the 1970s.”
Soltani shared similar views after the meeting, saying the broad participation of organizations was a strong indicator of Oklahoma’s empathy for refugees.
“I don’t know if this is happening in other parts of the country, but I think this is a very strong testament to what Oklahoma is, as far as a place of diverse faith communities and how those faith communities continually and consistently come together to support each other and, more importantly, to support others in need, regardless of who they are or what their faith background happens to be,” he said.
Soltani said his organization will be ready to aid the refugees with a host of resources, including tangible resources like transportation or spiritual resources such as access to a copy of the Quran, the Islamic holy book.
“In a broader context, we recognize that a vast majority of these Afghani refugees, if not all of them, are going to be Muslim and we have that responsibility to our brothers and sisters in humanity and in our faith community to try to make this as easy of a transition for them as possible, knowing that they’re going to be leaving the life they’ve known and coming to some place they’re not familiar with,” he said.
‘On a journey’
Mark Chan, Catholic Charities-OKC’s Refugee Resettlement director, gave attendees a quick overview of refugees and their general mindset when participating in a resettlement program.
He said most refugees would rather be in their native country than resettling elsewhere due to crisis.
“If they had their druthers, they would be at home. They would prefer to be at home,” Chan said.
He said refugees become part of their new communities, finding jobs and raising their families so it “is not a thing of once a refugee, always a refugee.”
“These folks are on a journey,” Chan said.
He said he wasn’t excited about the circumstances surrounding the Afghans fleeing their homes, but “If they do by chance end up making it to Oklahoma, I do consider it an honor to help them, and I hope you will consider joining me in that.”
Catholic Charities-OKC leaders said projected needs for Afghan refugees would include: Lodging (including set up), legal services, medical care, English language training/English as a Second Language, employment transportation, translation, financial counseling and trauma support.
Jessi Riesenberg, Catholic Charities-OKC’s senior director of development and outreach, said it was important to note that the agency is still on “stand by” regarding Afghan refugees until they learn anything different.
She also said monetary gifts are a good way to support the refugee resettlement program because of storage limitations and to ensure that refugees are given items of of excellent quality.
How to help
For more information about partnering with the refugee resettlement effort in the event of Afghan resettlement in Oklahoma, email Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City at firstname.lastname@example.org and include “Afghan” and the need area, i.e. lodging, legal, volunteer, etc.