Oklahoma opens its arms to Afghan refugees with welcome centre
In Oklahoma, a state that has not historically had a sizable Afghan community, the governor decided to take in 1,800 Afghan refugees following the US withdrawal in August 2021. In response, NGOs and volunteers worked together to distribute welcome kits to make the new residents feel at home.
This week, thanks to a partnership between the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Oklahoma (CAIR-Oklahoma) and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City, the new community - more than 1,000 alone in Oklahoma City - now has its own resource centre. Here Afghan parolees can collect clothing, household items and hygiene products.
It is also a place where Afghan refugees can connect with people who can assist with legal services and other assistance they require.
"How did we end up with Afghans in Oklahoma? I didn't know any who lived here before September 2021. With the US pulling out of Afghanistan, we all of a sudden heard the news that our governor said he’d be happy to take in Afghan refugees, which was surprising because he’s conservative," Adam Soltani, executive director of CAIR-Oklahoma, told The New Arab.
"And then boom, they're here. We now have the third largest [new] Afghan community in the US after California and Texas."
With the help of Catholic Charities, the local refugee resettlement agency, he and other organisers and volunteers quickly got to work making welcome kits for the new arrivals, which included Qurans, prayer rugs, food from a local halal restaurant, and whatever else might make them feel at home. With all of this work, they needed a space.
As luck would have it, St. John's Episcopal Church had a school building that was no longer in use. It includes three classrooms and a private entrance. Funding came from the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America and it allows Afghan refugees to pick up donations that continue to come in.
"St. John’s found the neighborly work of CAIR to be a perfect match for the kind of outreach that is part and parcel of the bedrock of charity that guides the Christian life," said Fr. Natahan Carr of St. John’s Episcopal Church in a public statement. "We see our new neighbors as a gift to this city and our space as the kind of asset that spurs on the kind of community that characterizes the life of faith."
So far, Soltani says overall he’s been impressed with how quickly the Afghans in Oklahoma have adapted to their new environment, with children doing well in school and many adults having found jobs, though many are still living in hotels as they struggle to find permanent housing due to a nationwide housing shortage.
Soltani is aware that Oklahoma - famous for the Tulsa Massacre of Black Wall Street and the Trail of Tears (the violent removal of Native Americans from their lands) - has not always been a welcoming place for minorities, which makes the new resource centre all the more heartening.
"All of the items that have been donated have come from such a diverse group of people, from people from all different walks of life," he said. "This to me is a better representation of what Oklahoma is versus the hate we see in politics."
He said he wants people to know that "we're going to have an Afghan community in this state, whether you like it or not".
"We really should embrace these individuals and help them succeed. That's what the resource centre is all about."