OSU, Catholic church help fill gaps in finances, community for Afghan refugees

Kluver said the Afghans began arriving in Stillwater in December 2021, and the last arrived this past April. He said the refugees largely have been embraced by the Stillwater community, particularly in recent weeks as OSU’s partnership — and subsequent funding — has ended with Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma’s resettlement program.

STILLWATER — He wasn’t expecting to get a glimpse of home on his first visit to the Oklahoma State University campus.

Tayyab Ghazniwal was thousands of miles away from his native Afghanistan, and yet he could see the red, black and green flag of his homeland flying high outside OSU’s School of Global Studies and Partnerships. 

“I had not seen it flying since leaving my home eight months ago. That flag spoke to me,” Ghazniwal said at a recent interfaith gathering in Oklahoma City.  

“It called me to Stillwater, it called me to Oklahoma State University. I felt the hand of God, the voice of God saying ‘come to Oklahoma State,’ and so I came. I found purpose here.” 

Ghazniwal is among 71 Afghan refugees who have resettled in Stillwater after fleeing Afghanistan when the country’s government collapsed in 2021. Randy Kluver, dean of OSU’s Center for Global Studies and Partnerships, said more than half of those refugees are currently living in university housing on the OSU campus. 

Kluver said the Afghans began arriving in Stillwater in December 2021, and the last arrived this past April. He said the refugees largely have been embraced by the Stillwater community, particularly in recent weeks as OSU’s partnership — and subsequent funding — has ended with Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma’s resettlement program.

“They are our neighbors,” he said of the refugees.

That neighborly connection became a critical factor as the university’s contract with Catholic Charities came to an end in early May. Kluver said fortunately by then, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church had set up a fund to meet the refugees’ ongoing needs. 

“Our goal is that nobody falls through the cracks,” Kluver said.

Deacon Kevin Sartorius is chief executive officer of Catholic Charities-Eastern Oklahoma. He said his agency is asked to complete a core resettlement checklist with each refugee in their resettlement program in a 90-day window. Core resettlement includes things like helping refugees obtain jobs, housing and driver’s licenses. 

Sartorius said sometimes those matters are not completed within the 90-day window of a standard resettlement contract. However, another community agency typically helps move the refugees forward in the resettlement process after the initial 90 days. Sartorius said that agency in Tulsa is the YWCA, which stepped in to help refugees in Tulsa became established. This aid could last up to five years, if necessary.

The Afghans in Stillwater are in a different situation. 

Sartorius said Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City extends throughout many counties in Oklahoma, but not Payne County, where Stillwater is located. And the Tulsa YWCA doesn’t extend to Stillwater, either.

“So there’s no one in Stillwater to usher the refugees from the 90-day mark to five years,” he said. “These 70 people in Stillwater are kind of in a bit of a gap.” 

Thus, as Kluver indicated, St. Francis Xavier’s refugee fund is much needed. Sartorius said there was never any real danger that the refugees in Stillwater would be left with no aid. He said Kluver and OSU have been great from the start. Plus, he said they have hired a Catholic Charities case manager who had been working with the refugees and the fund from St. Francis Xavier will help pay her salary. This helps ensure that the families will continue working with one of the resettlement program staff members they are familiar with.   

“It’s a little bit outside the normal operations, but we’re trying to be creative in making it all work, as opposed to walking away,” Sartorius said.

He said his agency is still involved with the Afghan refugees, with a focus on helping them get through the process of obtaining asylum status from the U.S. government. 

The Rev. Brian O’Brien, pastor of St. Francis Xavier, said his church didn’t hesitate to answer the call for help when the congregation learned Afghan refugees would be resettling in Stillwater. Church members who wished to help were matched with refugee families, and the volunteers have cultivated friendships with Afghans.

“A year ago, I didn’t think I’d be this involved with the OSU Center for Global Studies, but here we are,” O’Brien said, chuckling. “It’s been a good, mutual relationship.”   

He said the refugee fund was started several weeks ago, and donations from the general public are welcome. He said two anonymous donors with ties to OSU came forward, and each donated a generous amount for the new Stillwater transplants. The priest said a local business that also wishes to remain anonymous, also has contributed.  

Both the priest and Kluver said the funds have come in handy to help with medical and dental issues, like tooth extractions.

“So we’re able to help with those bills because of the generosity of several people,” O’Brien said. “We’re just trying to help them get a good start in the United States.” 

Finding community

Ghazniwal shared his story at Dialogue Institute-Oklahoma City’s interfaith Friendship Dinner in downtown Oklahoma City. The nonprofit honored OSU President Kayse Shrum with a 2022 Dialogue Hero Award, and Ghazniwal and Kluver each spoke to the crowd about Afghans resettling in Stillwater.

Ghazniwal said he had offers of scholarships at other colleges, but he was glad he chose OSU. He said he found fulfilling work serving children from Afghan refugee families who attend Stillwater’s Will Rogers Elementary School during the school year. 

The OSU student said education is going to be the key to success, “the solution” for his young charges, other Afghan refugees and for Afghanistan. 

Kluver said one of the ways the refugees are moving forward is through OSU’s TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages)/Applied Linguistics Department. Stephanie Link, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department, is founder and director of the the OSU Program, informally called OSU Compassionate Afghan Resettlement and English Services.

“Steph Link and her team, they’ve just done phenomenal work,” Kluver said. “So now the third floor of the Wes Watkins Center is ‘Afghan central.'” 

Link said OSU CARES is funded through an OSU Community Engagement Award, which helped get the program started. She said that award grant help the program obtain a larger grant from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. 

The OSU CARES team includes English professors and graduate students, is helping the refugees learn basic English, conversational English and English for the workplace. Kluver said this aid has proved beneficial to many of the refugees in terms of finding employment in their new home. 

Along the way, the OSU community of staff and student leaders have established friendly relationships with many of the refugee families, and it’s not uncommon for them to visit the Afghans’ homes for meals or conversation.

“We’re getting to know them and making sure they know that we value them,” OSU English professor Nathan Horton said.

Horton said he decided to do a needs analysis focusing on their employment. He recently visited a Chick-fil-A restaurant where one of the Afghans works and spoke to the manager about how the OSU CARES program could help the refugee as he navigates his new job. He said all of the supervisors he spoke with gave the refugees glowing reviews.  

‘We can make our best life here’

Several of the refugees talked about their journey.

Sayed Noor Hassan Nasery and his wife Aziza Kermani are hoping to establish a home in Stillwater with their 2-year-old son.

Nasery said he has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and was an accountant with 12 years of experience in Afghanistan. He said the culture surrounding his chosen career is different in his native land as compared with America, and he is trying to come to terms with this. 

“I hope I get a job here,” he said. “The hiring process is very long.”

However, he said he and his family have been welcomed by the OSU community and Stillwater residents.

“The people working here are trying to help Afghan people. They are trying to help make things better,” he said. “Americans are very kind, especially in Stillwater.”

Kermani, his wife, was a journalist in Afghanistan. She said she’s grateful for the hourlong OSU CARES English classes, although she’d like more time in these classes. She said the cultural orientation classes are also helpful.  

“Honestly, the program here at OSU is beneficial and important,” she said through a translator.

Another refugee, Sonil Jalili, said he lives on the OSU campus and he came to Oklahoma because his fiancé was here.

“We are safe here more than Afghanistan,” he said. “We can relax. We can make our best life here.”

He said he knows how to speak English fairly well so he is hoping for a better life than the one that lay ahead of him when the Afghanistan government collapsed and the Taliban regime began its takeover.

Jalili said he does worry about finding permanent housing because he and his fiancee don’t have any savings.

“We are going to try to stand on our own feet,” he said. “We appreciate the help.”

Niamatullah Abdul Rauf is also among the Afghan refugees in Stillwater. He came to Oklahoma in January 2022, and he is helping Link’s team by serving as a translator for the Afghan refugees on the OSU campus.