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Refugee admissions declined significantly in 2018

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A few years ago, Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma helped resettle an average of more than two dozen refugees a month.

Last fiscal year, the agency averaged less than half a dozen a month but had some months without any new arrivals.

Although resettlement numbers can vary widely from month to month, the program overall has seen a significant decline in resettlements during the past couple of years. The number of refugees who were resettled in eastern Oklahoma during the 2018 fiscal year (65) was about one-fifth as many as were resettled just two years earlier (330).

"That just tells you the numbers," said Julie Dulek, director of refugee resettlement, counseling and transitional living for Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma. " … It has a big effect on the economy, too."

Staff at Catholic Charities typically place newly arrived refugees in local apartments. The refugees then get jobs and eventually move out and buy their own vehicles and homes, Dulek said. With the reduction in the amount of arrivals, staff haven’t been placing as many people in apartments, so their occupancy rates have fallen, Dulek said. The declining numbers also affect local businesses, she said. Refugees inject money into the economy by supporting local businesses, and in some cases, starting their own businesses.

Last year marked a year of drastic cuts to U.S. refugee admissions. During the 2018 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the United States admitted 22,491 refugees, the lowest number since 1980 when the modern refugee resettlement program was created. It was less than half the cap set by the Trump administration of 45,000.

For the current fiscal year, the administration set the cap even lower, at 30,000.

A week after taking office in 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily halting all refugee admissions. Since then, his administration also reshaped the refugee program through procedural changes.

The type of refugee being admitted to the U.S. also has changed, according to an analysis by Reuters. The percentage of refugees who are Muslim is about one-third what it was two years ago, while the percentage who are European has tripled, Reuters reported in September.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, which is responsible for refugee resettlement in central and western Oklahoma, resettled 27 refugees during the 2018 fiscal year, down from 226 refugees two years prior.

Chelsea Rose, director of community engagement, said the concept of having refugees in the community often is misunderstood.

"They are our neighbors," Rose said. "They’re no different than us. With refugees sometimes it feels like they’re worlds away because they used to be worlds away, but now they’re in the apartment next to us and they’re a part of our community. They work so hard."

Staff greet arriving refugees at the airport, help secure food, housing, clothing, furniture and other living supplies, provide transportation assistance and help make referrals to community partners, among other services.

Rose recalled an Eritrean family's emotional reunion in Guymon last year after being separated for 11 years. The father had been living in Oklahoma, and his wife and children had been in Eritrea. The woman doubled over in joy when she spoke to her husband on the phone from the baggage claim area of the airport after landing on U.S. soil, Rose said. When they saw each other for the first time in Guymon, the husband ran to his wife and wrapped her in a big hug, then pulled the children into the embrace. Afterward, there was dancing and rejoicing.

Dulek said refugees are hardworking people who are just looking for a better life. Some have come from war zones where they lived in fear for their lives and their children's lives. Refugees often arrive with just two suitcases or even fewer belongings, and many come from sparse conditions.

"They may not have ever had a bed before, their own bed, and so to give them a key to an apartment that’s all their own is just sometimes a concept that really kind of blows their mind," Dulek said. " ... They are so appreciative."

Darla Slipke

Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman. She is a native of Bristol, Conn., and a graduate of the University of Kansas. Slipke worked for newspapers in Kansas, Connecticut, North Carolina and Oklahoma, including a previous... Read more ›

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