In the basement of the old St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, a small tan brick building near downtown Stillwater, Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma Operation Manager Mike FitzGerald has been working 12-hour days to find clothing, housing and food for the estimated 40 Afghan refugee families that will begin to arrive in Payne County in November.
“Imagine all the things you need to live,” FitzGerald said. “Just to sleep, you need an apartment, a bed, a mattress … Where are all those things going to come from?”
About 1,800 Afghan refugees are headed to Oklahoma. The group is mostly comprised of people who worked in some capacity for the U.S. government over the course of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, as well as their families. The state will receive the third-highest number of Afghan refugees in the nation, behind California and Texas, according to data compiled by Axios.
About 800 refugees will settle in Oklahoma City and outlying areas, and another 1,000 will go to the Tulsa area and Stillwater, according to Catholic Charities, which is contracting with the U.S. State Department for the resettlement in Oklahoma. Catholic Charities is the only refugee resettlement agency in Oklahoma.
The U.S. government is providing a lump sum of about $1,000 per refugee to Catholic Charities. Refugees will receive a one-time payment of $1,225 and most of that money will go to cover housing costs. The rest of the money needed for the five-year resettlement process will come from Catholic Charities’ budget, according to Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma CEO Kevin Sartorius.
Under federal law, refugees are entitled to hold jobs after they enter the United States, but there’s often a wait until the government can process the work permits. It could take up to two months before many of the refugees can legally work. Catholic Charities will help the refugees find jobs once they receive their permits.
It may be more of a challenge for refugees to find jobs in a smaller city such as Stillwater, which has a population of about 50,000 people, FitzGerald said.
Initial plans called for Stillwater to host about 25 families instead of 40. But the availability of housing in Stillwater enabled Catholic Charities to increase the city’s allotment to 40 out of the estimated 200 families coming to the Tulsa area. The resettlement will be the largest in the city’s history.
After a hurried evacuation from Afghanistan, most of the refugees will arrive in the United States with nothing but the clothes they are wearing and whatever they can carry, which means that Catholic Charities needs to find housing, clothing, furniture, food, and transportation before they arrive.
The first priority for resettlement is finding long-term housing for the refugees. But with a housing market under the strain of a lengthy pandemic in many areas around Oklahoma, even that basic need has proven difficult to fulfill.
“As we started to investigate both Oklahoma City and Tulsa, we found that there’s a pretty severe shortage of long-term housing,” Sartorius said.
FitzGerald has so far been able to secure about 40 apartments in Stillwater, allowing him to shift his focus to acquiring other necessities for the incoming refugees. Oklahoma State University has agreed to lease 25 apartments for reduced rent, and several private landlords have agreed to work with the refugees. The refugees will arrive with no Social Security numbers or credit history, which can be a significant barrier to renting.
FitzGerald is a retired U.S. Army colonel who previously managed networks of translators for the military. He has worked for Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma for two years, and the Afghan resettlement effort is by far the largest project he’s undertaken.
FitzGerald admits the amount of work required during the early stages of resettlement can be overwhelming, but he believes it will be worth it in the end.
“To be able to help this many people and make such a difference in so many people’s lives, it’s truly incredible,” he said.
Resettlement efforts have caused some controversy in Oklahoma.
While Gov. Kevin Stitt has expressed support for Afghan resettlement in Oklahoma, state GOP Chairman John Bennett has criticized the process, releasing a video to voice concerns that there is no way to “properly” vet the refugees. But all refugees undergo a seven-step screening process that includes a background check and biometric checks, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce said the city is ready to welcome its new Afghan residents.
“We have a strong international community and a local culture that values and supports people and families, no matter where they call home,” Joyce said. “I think Stillwater would be an ideal destination, in that it combines a smaller, slower-paced environment that also incorporates familiar faces, international markets, and welcoming neighbors.”
The first Afghans arrived in Oklahoma City and in Tulsa last week. Refugees will begin to arrive in Stillwater from military bases across the United States in early November.
“The resettlement will begin with one or two families, and once we feel like we’ve gotten the process down, the rest will slowly start trickling in,” FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald is the only Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma employee working on the resettlement on the ground in Stillwater, but he has managed to build a network of more than 100 people to assist the refugees, including student translators from OSU, drivers, and volunteers from almost every church in the city.
“Virtually everyone I’ve talked to has said ‘what can I do, how can I help,’” Sartorius said. “Catholic Charities is kind of the coordinating agency, the glue that holds it all together, but we’re by no means lifting this all by ourselves.”
Catholic Charities is also partnering with other nonprofit organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations Oklahoma, The Spero Project, and local Catholic churches such as the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Stillwater. The organizations will help with funding, soliciting donations, and finding volunteers to assist the resettlement effort.
Very Rev. Brian O’Brien of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, who has been helping gather donations for the refugees, said he and the church will welcome Afghan families to Stillwater.
“Depending on the political situation in Afghanistan, some might return, some might move to big cities like New York, but most will give back to the community for years to come,” O’Brien said.
FitzGerald has special plans for when he welcomes each Afghan family to Stillwater. A rice cooker, basic furnishings, a variety of spices, hot tea, and a hot meal will await them at their new apartments.
“What says love more than a hot-cooked meal?” FitzGerald said.