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Afghan refugees find home in Stillwater

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Faculty council meeting

Oklahoma State officials and faculty met to discuss topics including the resettlement of Afghan refugees in Stillwater.

As they left Afghanistan, their lives were forever changed.  

Tayyab Ghazniwal is a refugee who fled Afghanistan and lives in Stillwater. Ghazniwal attended a school where he learned English before the Taliban regained control. 

In Afghanistan, I was a part of The International School of Kabul and the school was funded by USAID, so the staff was predominantly foreigners,” Ghazniwal said. “I was a part of that institution for seven years, but eventually the school shut down because of threats from terrorists. I continued my education through the online medium. I funded it personally through being a teacher in Afghanistan.”  

The U.S. had been involved in its longest war until last year in Afghanistan. During that time, the U.S. attempted to help Afghan citizens fight the Taliban. The Taliban and the U.S. government agreed to a withdrawal deadline for U.S. troops by May 1. 

In April, President Joe Biden announced he would order all troops to be home before the anniversary of 9/11. As the U.S. evacuated several thousand Afghan refugees in July, Stillwater became a place of relocation. 

The evacuation process from Afghanistan to the U.S. was not easy. In about three months, Ghazniwal traveled from Afghanistan to Qatar, Germany, Washington, D.C., New Mexico and finally to Stillwater. Ghazniwal said the process for some families to get to the U.S.can take six months 

Unfortunately, none of these locations were properly prepared for us to come,” Ghazniwal said. “In Germany, we struggled with food and people lost a lot of weight. It was horrible. In Qatar, the food was fine, but there was no housing, so people struggled with that. It was a difficult journey. The refugee camp I was in was in the middle of a desert.” 

Ghazniwal arrived in Stillwater on Jan. 8 and lives in Oklahoma State student housing. Ghazniwal said the cultural and linguistic differences have made it difficultfor the refugees to adjust.  

“In the first couple of weeks some of the families struggled because there were less Afghan families here,” Ghazniwal said. “(The families) don’t speak the language of America, so they still do struggle with barriers, but it will improve over time.”  

To help begin to bridge this gap, Oklahoma State’s English Language and Intercultural Center created the Conversation Partners program under the OSU CARES grant.The program stands for Compassionate Afghan Resettlement and English Services. CARES conducts language assessments and figures out employability for the refugees.  

Assistant Director Shahrzad Mehrzad develops, selects and teaches the instructional materials for the 32 Afghan students enrolled in the CARES program. Newcomers are continuing to be enrolled in the program every few weeks.  

We offer two English as a Second Language (ESL) classes titled, ‘English for Cultural Integration’ and ‘English for Occupational Purposes’ for students,” Mehrzad said. “The former is designed for beginner students, and the latter is for more intermediate and advanced levels. Each class meets three days a week from 9-10:45 a.m.”  

After the refugees ESL classes, the refugees have Conversation Partners, where volunteers and students are paired. The volunteers range from OSU students to residents. Mehrzad said the topics include how to ride a bus in Stillwater, getting ready for taking a driving test and lessons in American currency are based on the individual students needs 

The classes and conversation partners are the primary instructional purposes in the CARES program. Mehrzad said the beginner classes are helpful for these newcomers who have little knowledge of English and need to be able to be a part of the Stillwater community.  

“The class for beginners prepares the learners for the important daily interactions and helps them navigate daily life in the U.S. culture,” Mehrzad said. “The ‘English for Occupational Purposes’ course focuses on workplace English and helps students with job hunting and applications. We are hopeful this program assists this group to be an active part of the community.”  

Ghazniwal works for the CARES program and the Stillwater Public Schools to teach English to the other refugee families. Ghazniwal is a language interpreter, teacher and a familiar face for the Afghan families.   

“I work roughly 30 hours per week as a teacher at Will Rogers Elementary,” Ghazniwal said. “I specialize specifically with the Afghan kids, but I do have about three years of teaching experience so I connect with kids easily. I get a lot of attention from the American kids as well, so it’s fun.”  

Ghazniwal said the students English is improving and it isvaluable he is able to communicate with the refugees. Ghazniwal said OSU and the CARES program have been beneficialfor the education of adults and children.  

Ghazniwal said the refugees English classes for the children are getting a lot of attention, but the adult classes could be improved on.  

“I have been a direct witness to (CARES) having a positive improvement on the kids,” Ghazniwal said. “In the first couple of weeks, there was less improvement because of the struggle to adapt to a new environment, but as we let go of all of the fear and people become familiarized in our brainswe are able to learnand develop English abilities.”   

The community has responded generously to the refugees, and volunteers have started working with them one-on-one through the conversation partners program. Mackenzie Tomlinson is an English masters student at OSU who was encouraged to join the program because of her experience teaching Composition I.  

“I am paired up with the refugees depending on their level of English,” Tomlinson said. “I work with them on conversation English so that they can go out and participate in the community. We are also working on (the refugees) getting their drivers license and GEDs, so we have been studying for those tests. We must cater to all of the different needs regardless of their English level to get them set up in the community.”  

Tomlinson started volunteering Feb. 9. She said CARES gives the refugees a crash course of everything they need, including documents, friendly faces and a fresh start. Tomlinson found connecting with them as members of the community was essential.  

“It is important to empathize with them,” Tomlinson said. “(The refugees) had no choice in what happened to them. It could have easily been us. The things they went through are traumatic, but they are kind, welcoming and resilient people. We need to volunteer to get them settled and give them a warm welcome in our community.”  

The refugees have to start over with a new languages alphabetical symbols. Learning things such as colors and letters is a challenge. Mehrzad said CARES helps volunteers develop an understanding of what working with and teaching English looks like to a group of refugees. 

“The benefits for the volunteers can be at a personal and professional level,” Mehrzad said. “On the personal level, volunteers get to know people from a different part of the world and appreciate the culture, worldviews and traditions these Afghan newcomers bring with them. This is needed especially in a community that values cultural diversity.”  

Mehrzad said bringing people together in the CARES program can create a sense of cooperation and understanding for one another. Mehrzad said the ability to develop an awareness of the Middle Eastern culture and the life values this group of refugees holds will hopefully broaden the horizons of the volunteers 

Bringing the refugees to Stillwater and involving them in OSU has created a more personalized experience for the refugees integrating into the community. Randy Kluver,dean of the School of Global Studies and Partnerships,has been heavily involved in the OSU resettlement effort for refugees from Tulsa to Stillwater.  

(Stillwater) is a better fit for so many reasons,” Kluver said. “The refugees in Stillwater all started in Tulsa and moved here. The (refugees) who moved here find it is much more hospitable. They are being able to have a smaller group of people working with them, and their housing is a short distance away from their English classes and the Islamic center.” 

Kluver said overall, the move is helping them significantly. A more personalized experience in Stillwater is beneficial. OSU has a diverse community with a lot of international students and faculty. Kluver said the volunteers in CARES have been remarkably helpful.   

Volunteers from all over the town have been taking people to stores, donating and helping teach English. Kluver said he thinks the response is coming from a place of gratitude.  

“Most of the Afghan refugees put their lives on the line helping Americans,” Kluver said. “(Volunteering) is a way for us to show our gratitude to the refugees for the help they gave to us when we were in their country.”  

The focus is on getting the refugees here and signed up for the program, for there arepeople moving to Stillwater once or twice a week. The refugees can have access to the OSU bus network and receive help looking for jobs. It is harder for the refugees to get around big cities without cars 

The university also is bringing Afghan students who are registering at OSU. Ghazniwal is one of the students attending OSU. He is enrolled as a part-time student in six credit hours this semester. Kluver said the university has enrolled two refugees. 

“Being able to give them high-quality English instruction, which they often wouldn’t get elsewhere, is going to help them make progress quickly,” Kluver said. “They will be able to become employable much quicker.”  

Adding to the CARES grant, OSU works with the Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma for refugees resettled in Stillwater to create the Afghan Family Project. Kluver works closely with this project as the communication between the programs.  

“Catholic Charities only has a 90-day contact to resettle (the refugees),” Kluver said. “As of May 1, that contract will be over. We are thinking about what happens after that date until everybody learns English. We know we will offer ESL instruction for up to a year. There will be additional services like job training that are going to need additional help.”  

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church is the local branch of Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma. The Rev. Kerry Wakulich has seen resources coming to OSU from different parts of Oklahoma for the refugees. Some of the food, clothing and money donations are coming from the Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma’s immigration offices of Tulsa and Oklahoma City.  

As a group, the Catholics of Oklahoma decided we need to help Afghan refugees,” Wakulich said. “We have several families here that are living in rentals and trying to learn English at OSU. The volunteers are also helping them through donations of giving them gift cards to the Himalayan Grocery Store where they can buy their cultural foods. 

Wakulich said the programs are working together to help the refugees become involved and stay here as long as they want raising families. Wakulich said he is thankful people are offering to help them learn the language and get involved in public schools.  

Learning about this opportunity through her church, Lindsey Gorske volunteers for the CARES program. Gorske focuses on practical skills such as conversation language, handling medical visits and writing your name because of the difference in the languages alphabetical symbols 

Gorske saidshe has to be flexible with the variety of language skills within the group. In some parts of the Middle East, women are not allowed to drive, so they are coming to the U.S.with no knowledge. She said it was eye-opening to talk with the refugees about basic cultural differences Americans might not even second-guess. 

I was put in a group with two Afghan women, and we talked about everything important when learning how to drive because they do not have any way of getting around,” Gorske said. “Once you sit down with these people and get to know them a little bit, it doesn’t take long to enjoy their company. (The CARES program) is a place for them to come together and learn about our culture in America. (The refugees) have contact points of people they know they can talk to, and I hope it shows them that there are people here who care and welcome them.”  

Mehrzad said the CARES program needs to help them become productive and employed while keeping them as engaged as possible. OSU plans to have all of the families in Stillwater by the end of March. Finding everyone permanent employment, housing and success in schools are the program’s long-term goals