'These aren't the bad guys': Afghanistan refugees' arrival in Oklahoma has retired Army colonel back in action

Tulsa World
Barbara Hoberock

STILLWATER — A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces who served in Afghanistan wants Oklahomans to understand something about the refugees being resettled here.

“These are people that are asking for our help,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Mike FitzGerald. “They are young families with small children. These aren’t the bad guys.”

These are people who assisted the United States with things like language interpretation and finding supplies, said FitzGerald, who serves as operations manager for Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma. 

He is helping the city of Stillwater prepare to host dozens of refugee families from Afghanistan; Oklahoma City and Tulsa have already seen some arrivals.

The recent removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan drew international attention.

The first families are expected to start arriving Nov. 1, said FitzGerald, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and 19 years in the reserves, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The city is expecting about 40 families, he said.

Officials have found enough housing so far to accommodate the families, including accommodations provided by Oklahoma State University and private landlords, Fitzgerald said. They expect to tap into the assistance of a local food bank, Our Daily Bread, but they still need funding for groceries, he said. 

The news of incoming refugees has been met with enthusiasm, said Very Rev. Brian O’Brien, pastor of Saint Francis Zavier Catholic Church in Stillwater.

“Stillwater has long been a wonderfully inclusive place,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien is aware of the anti-refugee sentiments of some.

“I trust Catholic Charities,” he said. “Catholic Charities settles refugees all the time.”

O’Brien said he thinks the anti-refugee sentiment might be political grand standing for a base. He said he hasn’t seen it in Stillwater.

Stillwater Mayor Will Joyce agrees.

“Stillwater is a very welcoming community and home to a lot of international students as part of OSU and has been a very diverse community because of our status as a university town,” Joyce said. “I would expect that any new refugee or other international visitors will find it to be a very welcoming place.”

Organizers have set up a committee structure to help with things like transportation, adult education, children’s education, jobs, household supplies, furniture and groceries. 

English language classes will be provided, FitzGerald said.

The children will be allowed to enroll in Stillwater Public Schools, FitzGerald said.

A trained case manager with Catholic Charities will be assigned to the families to help them navigate a new life, FitzGerald said.

The U.S. Department of State will provide $1,225 per person in the family, FitzGerald said.

Work authorizations, which normally take 18 to 24 months, will be expedited so family members can find work more quickly, FitzGerald said.

Despite being a college town with an influx of potential workers during the school year, O’Brien and FitzGerald said there are plenty of jobs above minimum wage available in Stillwater.

FitzGerald said there will be no proselytizing.

“The initial task is to welcome the stranger, to help people in need,” O’Brien said. “We do that out of our faith.”

O’Brien and FitzGerald said a lot of issues are still being worked out.

“Whenever a need has arisen, it gets met,” O’Brien said.

'These aren't the bad guys': Afghanistan refugees' arrival in Oklahoma has retired Army colonel back in action | Tulsa World