Why some Afghan refugees in Oklahoma live in squalor
Bugs crawl from unfinished gaps between walls and linoleum floors and into the ears and mouths of Afghan children as they sleep.
Their family of seven living at The Restoration on Candlewood awoke in a sticky coat of sweat daily this summer. A working central heat and air system was not part of the northwest Oklahoma City apartment complex’s advertised renovations. Their tubs and sinks are crusty with slowly drained sewage.
A four-year-old Afghan girl was nearly kidnapped from this complex twice in one week, according to local refugee resettlement officials. Her parents stopped calling the police after the men were arrested and released, fearing retaliation.
An Oklahoma Watch review of more than 100 complaints, apartment unit tours and interviews with residents paint a portrait of unsafe and substandard living conditions for many Afghan refugees who resettled in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. A year after the fall of Kabul, some who worked toward American interests during the 20-year war in their country and expected to find safety in Oklahoma are subject to break-ins, pest infestations, no air conditioning and uncertain futures.
When Gov. Kevin Stitt and the leadership of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City chose to resettle over 1,800 Afghan refugees in Oklahoma last fall, housing was scarce.Fewer than three in 100 Oklahoma City apartments were available, according to census data. In Tulsa, it was fewer than four in 100.
“That didn’t mean there wasn’t any housing, it just meant that it would take a long time to find it,” said Patrick Raglow, executive director of Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City, the faith-based nonprofit contracting with the federal government for refugee resettlement.
With median rents increasing about 15% in those cities since last summer, a $1,500-per-month apartment now goes for $1,725. For most Afghan refugee families, federal relief funds will cover rent and utilities through March 2023, said Shannon Carr, Communications Director for Community Cares Partners, a non-profit under contract to distribute those funds.
“In this tight housing market with very limited options, we’ve had to thread the needle between finding them not only housing that fits their family, but that they can sustainably afford after those federal dollars are gone,” Raglow said.
He said the nonprofit originally offered to resettle about 350 refugees and increased the number at the governor’s behest. He said when he and the governor agreed to bring 1,800 refugees to Oklahoma, they “knew there weren’t going to be enough places to put them.”
While on a tour of two apartment complexes Friday in Oklahoma City, Stitt said Oklahoma is a fit for Afghan refugees and rejected the notion that too many arrived too soon.
“First off, that’s not too many,” Stitt said. “They want to work. There’s a workforce need. And we definitely have the philanthropic groups to step up to help.”
Most Afghans resettled in what Raglow called effective and decent apartments. Those options quickly ran out, he said. Catholic Charities is tracking 61 Oklahoma City cases of non-functional air conditioning systems, 17 pest infestations, and at least three break-ins at apartments housing Afghans.
While some ACs have either been repaired or replaced with window units, one 28-year-old Afghan refugee who has been living in his apartment for eight months with his wife and five children still waits for management to fix his central air system. Temperatures hovered near 80 degrees inside his apartment when Oklahoma Watch visited earlier this month, having reached upwards of 101. The family can use only one of two showers without backing up sewage.
A video he recorded and shared shows bugs roaming around the apartment. His children, all under the age of 10, have woken up with cockroaches crawling in their ears and mouths, he said.
He spoke to Oklahoma Watch on the condition of not being named in the story for the protection of his family still living in Afghanistan. He is a former member of the Kandahar Strike Force — storing proof of his membership in the CIA-backed organization in his apartment bedroom. The strike force group was a U.S trained paramilitary unit that carried out night raids on largely civilian targets in the southern region of Afghanistan, according to The Intercept.
Saber, a former interpreter for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul who has transferred his skills to a job at Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma, said the conditions faced by some families in Tulsa are similar. As a former public face in Kabul, he requested Oklahoma Watch use only his first last name for the protection of his family back home.
He said some apartments have unpainted walls. Others have broken doors and windows.
As he’s worked with Afghan families in Tulsa and Stillwater and translated some of the terms of their leases for apartments, he said he’s seen rents anywhere from $750 for families living in international graduate student housing at Oklahoma State University to $3,500 for those living in the Tulsa metro.
“I can confirm that. That is absolutely real,” said Julie Davis, CEO of the YWCA in Tulsa, which is taking over the resettlement operation from Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma.
Davis cited data on Afghan refugees provided by Tulsa’s Catholic Charities showing lease rates higher than expected for these substandard conditions.
Within the next six to 12 months, 45 Afghan families at apartments in Tulsa will need to be re-homed, she said, adding that families larger than six will have an especially difficult time finding suitable and affordable housing.
In Stillwater, 41 evacuees live in international graduate student housing at OSU while another 30 live in apartments across the city.
Bryan Padgett is the pastor at Redeemers Church in Stillwater and worked as the volunteer coordinator for the resettlement in his area. Though living conditions for the Afghans in Stillwater are not dilapidated, he said there are fewer employment opportunities and jobs generally pay less.
Padgett said the university has been a major help, but he worries about how evacuated families will adjust when federal assistance ends and OSU leases aren’t renewed to make way for returning international students who stayed home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are already in the stages of trying to find other housing arrangements for when they have to pay their rent,” Padgett said. “So while everything is going well right now, I know for myself and others, we are probably more nervous for them than they are for themselves. They don’t know what’s coming and we do.”
Raglow said Catholic Charities has met the terms of its resettlement agreement and does not have a plan to deal with consequences for Afghan refugees who are unable to pay when their 18 months of rental assistance ends.
“On a macro level, we’ve done a magnificent job,” he said. “On an individual level, we’ve had challenges in the sense that this state does not have enough quality affordable housing.”
Catholic Charities’ responsibility for resettling refugees comes through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the nation’s nine designated resettlement agencies.
The conference — along with other faith-based organizations like the Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Church World Service — contracts with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Refugees receive a $1,225 stipend upon arrival and periodic cash bonuses if they find and maintain employment. They are offered continuing refugee social services for up to five years.
Catholic Charities in Oklahoma City will be reimbursed up to a total of $14.9 million to resettle Afghan refugees, according to provided data. Through July 8, it spent $4.4 million and has been reimbursed $3 million. The Afghan resettlement operation will cost $4.8 million, including $900,000 for housing, according to Jessi Riesenberg, Catholic Charities’ operations director.
When Afghan refugees were evacuated from Kabul last August, an estimated 95,000 Oklahomans were behind on rent and waiting for assistance from Community Cares Partners, which started providing federal dollars to Oklahomans in need in 2020.
With no citizenship requirements for that rental assistance, Catholic Charities officials seized an opportunity to ensure aid for up to 18 months — longer than regularly afforded to refugees — by having arriving Afghans apply through Community Cares Partners.
Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.