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Column: Oklahoma making progress to helping Afghans work, live in communities
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Column: Oklahoma making progress to helping Afghans work, live in communities

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Oklahoma is expected to be one of the leading states resettling Afghan evacuees over the next weeks and months as the U.S. receives tens of thousands.

While the U.S. has a moral obligation to support these displaced Afghans, they will contribute to the vibrancy of our communities and the strength of our economies for generations to come as other immigrant groups have done throughout our history.

About 1,800 evacuees are heading for Oklahoma, more than any other state except for California and Texas, according to federal government estimates. It’s estimated that 1,000 evacuees will settle in and around Oklahoma City, with the remaining 800 in Tulsa and Stillwater.

This presents a logistical challenge for Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma — the state’s only resettlement agency, but it’s also a huge opportunity. An investment in the future of refugees is an investment in the state’s collective future. Immigrants, including refugees, contribute to the economy — and those contributions occur on the local level.

Oklahoma has already benefitted from the 240,000 immigrants who call the Sooner State home. Immigrants comprise 6% of the state’s population, 15.7% the state’s construction workforce and 11.5% of its STEM workforce, according to a New American Economy analysis. They generate demand for goods through billions of dollars in spending power. They pay taxes, build businesses and end up creating jobs for others.

But to get to that point, they need assistance to rebuild their lives.

To help Afghan evacuees succeed in America, Oklahoma’s city and county governments, local nonprofit organizations and the private sector must all do their part.

In the short term, evacuees can stem the Oklahoma workforce shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecting refugees to education and job-training programs in key occupations such as nursing and engineering can help shore up long-term workforce gaps.

A key part of this effort is helping refugees to translate their skills for the American workforce.

Immigrants often have degrees, certifications and professional work experience, but American employers are less likely to accept these qualifications than they would similar ones from American workers. Localities can help by reforming occupational licensing laws to make it easier for immigrants and refugees to translate their foreign certifications into licenses that are valid in the U.S. The private sector can help by implementing inclusive hiring practices that consider foreign qualifications.

Tulsa is uniquely positioned to help Afghan evacuees find employment. The city’s Flourish Tulsa initiative developed strategies to help employers evaluate foreign credentials and design welcoming workplaces for immigrants from diverse backgrounds.

The Oklahoma economy and Afghan evacuees will benefit when evacuees are able to put their skills to work in their local communities.

Oklahoma’s low cost of living and affordable housing will give evacuees a leg up as they work to rebuild their lives. However, many immigrants don’t have the income and credit histories that property managers require. Oklahoma has started to tackle that problem: Oklahoma State University has offered to lease 25 apartments to Afghan evacuees at reduced rent. But this only covers a small fraction of the many families set to arrive. Local governments can help by incentivizing property managers to rent to evacuees.

Oklahoma’s biggest hurdle will be providing evacuees with the support system they need to successfully rebuild their lives, as the state doesn’t have a large existing Afghan population. Immigrants tend to settle near others from their home country who can help guide them through the integration process.

However, communities across the state are already stepping up to overcome this obstacle. The city of Tulsa passed a resolution welcoming Afghan evacuees and encouraging Tulsans to support their new neighbors.

America — and Oklahoma — were built by enterprising immigrants who came in search of a better life. Oklahoma’s economy and communities will benefit for years to come from the arrival of refugees.

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The World Food Programme (WFP) has started distributing money to the poor in Afghanistan. Thousands of families each will receive 3,500 Afghani (approx. 33 US dollars) per month for the next four months.

Kristin Kent Spanos is program manager of the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative in Dallas.

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