Oklahoma's high-ranking count of Afghan refugees a 'testament' to state's heart, official says

Tulsa World
Tim Stanley

The news that Oklahoma will be receiving the third highest number of Afghan refugees of any state is just further confirmation of its residents’ welcoming reputation, said one of the leaders of the resettlement effort. 

“It’s a testament to the incredible hearts and the incredible people that we have here in our community who step forward and say, ‘You know what? We’ll do this,’” said Deacon Kevin Sartorius, executive director of Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma.

The state already knew it was going to receive 1,800 from the initial group of 37,000 refugees, with 800 of them headed to Tulsa.

But according to data released this week in an Axios report, it was revealed that only California and Texas are set to receive more.

In fact, Tulsa by itself is taking in more than most states.

Sartorius, whose organization is in charge of resettling Oklahoma’s contingent of refugees, said officials were “a little surprised,” even “a little amazed,” at how the state compared to others.

Oklahoma’s 1,800 was an estimate proposed by agency officials from Tulsa and Oklahoma City when they filled out a State Department capacity survey, he said. 

“We didn’t know what anybody else was going to put down on their piece of paper,” he said. “We just knew that in Oklahoma, we have military bases here, veterans here. There’s a great economy here. There’s a low cost of living here. It’s a state that’s got a lot of hospitality.

“The number was our own best estimate of what we were being called to do by the Lord.”

The refugees are among tens of thousands who were evacuated last month from their homeland, when the United States withdrew from Afghanistan after a 20-year war.

There’s still a lot of work to do to prepare to receive them, Sartorius said. But they will have at least a little more time than originally thought.

Officials learned this week that it should be at least three weeks before the first arrivals in the state, after some refugees tested positive for the measles. Vaccinations are being given and will require 21 days.

Meanwhile, Sartorius added, local officials have received “assurances” on the first 100 or so refugees who will be coming to Tulsa. They range from individual men to families of six.

In a couple of weeks, when they are cleared to leave, the flight information will be sent, Sartorius said.

“We could end up with 200 people arriving over 10 days or something,” he said. 

Sartorius said dozens of Tulsa groups and religious organizations have reached out to offer services.

“It’s a blessing to see the outpouring of care and the way Tulsa just comes together when there’s a need,” he said. “There are some incredible people who are stepping forward to welcome these families.”

He knows that not everyone is opening their arms, though.

Recently, John Bennett, state Republican Party chairman, voiced his concerns over the screening process, going so far as to tell Oklahomans to call their elected officials and tell them not to allow refugees into the state.

“We welcome all sides. I don’t think we should try to silence anyone,” Sartorius said. “But when the voices are heard and tallied, it’s probably like 10,000 to one — it’s overwhelmingly in favor of receiving these people and caring for them.”

He added that knowing there are at least a few critical voices will “make us do a better job.”

“It’s going to call us to be very responsible in how we resettle folks into our community,” he said. “We know we need to do it right because people will be watching this.”

Sartorius said the most pressing needs continue to be permanent housing and household items. 

So far, apartments have been identified in Stillwater that will accommodate 20% of the arrivals.

Anyone who can help with housing, goods or other services is encouraged to go to cceok.org/refugees.

Oklahoma's high-ranking count of Afghan refugees a 'testament' to state's heart, official says | TulsaWorld