One year after Afghanistan evacuations, local services help Tulsa refugees build new lives

Tulsa World
Tim Stanley

When he fled Afghanistan last year along with his parents and siblings, Shakib Qadri had no clear plan for the future.

And that uncertainty didn’t suddenly go away upon arriving in the U.S.

“In my mind I thought ‘What if there is no one there to meet us, to help us? What will we do?’ I was a little scared for my family,” he said.

But looking back now, Qadri added, it’s clear it all served a purpose: It made him that much more suited for what he’s doing today.

One of a handful of new YWCA Tulsa case managers who came to Tulsa as refugees, Qadri now works on behalf of fellow refugees. And one year since the U.S. withdrawal and mass evacuations from his country, it couldn’t come at a better time.

With their immediate basic needs handled, Afghan refugees in Tulsa are entering a new, equally challenging phase of life in their new home. Among the concerns in front of them now are job support, transportation, language classes and becoming permanent U.S. residents.

To help, YWCA Tulsa, the official refugee support services provider for the eastern half of Oklahoma, expanded its Immigrant and Refugee Services division staff and recently opened a new south Tulsa location, 1323 E. 71st St. in the Riverbridge Office Park.

“It’s an area where we know many refugee and immigrant families call home,” YWCA Tulsa CEO Julie Davis said.

“We know that transportation can be a huge limitation in families receiving YWCA resources, so we are looking forward to providing more access to our services by being closer in proximity.”

The Tulsa area received more than 870 of the state’s Afghan refugee allotment of 1,800, and the YWCA is working with all of them, Davis said.

Services provided include case management, employment placement and support, interpretation and translation, English language classes and other general support services.

The staff expansion included 14 new employees, among them one new refugee program manager, one transportation coordinator, 10 caseworkers and two staff interpreters.

Qadri, 23, started in June. He has grown more comfortable in his new role as his English has improved, he said.

And the fact that he has gone through a similar experience to theirs helps him gain clients’ trust.

‘Peace of mind’

For most Afghans, the next step toward permanent residency is applying for asylum, which allows anyone forced to flee a country for fear of persecution to legally remain in the U.S.

So far nationally, asylum petitions for Afghans are being approved at a 95% rate.

In Tulsa, under the oversight of Catholic Charities’ immigration legal services program, 69 attorneys have been recruited for the project and to date have donated almost 1,200 hours of legal work.

Between all of them, Tulsa’s Afghan evacuees account for 220 asylum cases, and the goal is to file all petitions by mid-2023.

“It is quite the tall task,” said Tulsa attorney Kojo Asamoa-Caesar, who is leading the volunteer effort.

“But this is such a vital and urgent need, and I am so pleased to see the legal community in Tulsa step up in such a big way.”

Each refugee family is assigned a pro bono attorney to begin the process of filing a petition.

Within 45 days of filing, an interview is scheduled in Fort Smith, Arkansas, with an asylum officer at the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services office. The result is typically received within 150 days.

With asylum comes “an accompanying peace of mind,” Asamoa-Caesar said. Now on the legal path to permanent residency, “they can build their new lives and pursue their enduring dreams here in Tulsa.”

‘My biggest dream’

No one knows better about fleeing harm than Qadri, who is currently awaiting word on his own asylum application.

His father worked for a U.S.-based organization in Afghanistan, he said, which made the entire family a target for likely Taliban reprisals.

For weeks after the takeover, the family — including Qadri and his eight siblings — moved around, staying with different relatives and trying to keep out of sight.

Finally, it worked out for them to leave from Kabul Airport.

“We left everything behind,” Qadri said. “But when you are afraid for your family, you don’t care about your property. You just take care of your family.”

Qadri, who was in his fourth year as a medical student when he left Afghanistan, said he hopes to soon resume his studies here. One day, he would like to be a doctor and operate a free hospital for those in need.

“That is my biggest dream,” he said.

For now, though, Qadri is happy to help other refugees set goals and dreams of their own.

He tries to be “motivational,” he said.

“Every time when I’m meeting my clients, I’m telling them: ‘Work hard. Everyone is nice here, but you have to be self-sufficient. Just do your work. Do your best, as much as you can.’”

YWCA office hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. For more information on services or to schedule an appointment, call 918-858-2345. For more information on the asylum process, contact Asamoa-Caesar at 918-508-7184.

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