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Oklahoma Welcomes Hundreds Of Afghan Refugees — Despite The State GOP's Objections

Imam Mohamed Herbert of the Islamic Society of Tulsa, the city's only mosque, whose congregation is preparing to aid in resettling the 850 Afghan refugees bound for the city.
Chris Polansky
Public Radio Tulsa
Imam Mohamed Herbert of the Islamic Society of Tulsa, the city's only mosque, whose congregation is preparing to aid in resettling the 850 Afghan refugees bound for the city.

In a cavernous warehouse in Tulsa, Okla., Kathy Clarke is digging through a big produce crate filled with bedsheets, keeping a tally on a clipboard.

"They're bringing in a bunch of stuff and then we're sorting through it," Clarke says. "Right now, we're doing twin sheets and counting them as we put them in there."

The warehouse is normally where Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma stages donations for its food pantry. Today, though, Clarke is one of dozens of volunteers surrounded by donated mattresses, vacuum cleaners, shower curtains — anything a family might need to completely start over.

Clarke, a recently retired college administrator, says she was drawn to volunteer with Catholic Charities for the first time after seeing news reports of what the refugees had gone through to escape their home country.

"I hope that whoever sleeps on these sheets has a good life," she says, becoming emotional. "I do. They deserve it."

Catholic Charities is the sole refugee resettlement agency in Oklahoma, and they're gearing up for the arrival of around 1,800 Afghans in the days and weeks to come. That's the third most in the country, after only California (5,255) and Texas (4,481). Tulsa alone is set to take in 850, more than most states.

Preparing for the refugees' arrival has fallen largely on the shoulders of the city's faith leaders. On a residential block a few miles from the warehouse, First United Methodist Church lead pastor Jessica Moffatt unlocks the front door to one of six houses her congregation is fixing up and leasing to the Afghans at no cost.

Donated items are sorted in a warehouse for incoming families.
Chris Polansky / Public Radio Tulsa
Public Radio Tulsa
Donated items are sorted in a warehouse for incoming families.

"We just talk all the time about being aware of opportunities to provide what I call 'holy hospitality' to anyone who comes our way," she says.

The city's spiritual leaders from various denominations and faiths are in agreement about helping the Afghans, she says.

"And there's not a lot we can say that we all agree on," she says.

Mohamed Herbert, imam at the Islamic Society of Tulsa, politely disagrees.

"I've seen that a lot in Tulsa," says the leader the of city's only mosque, which draws roughly 2,000 worshippers weekly.

"Of course this is not to say we don't have problems, everybody's got problems," says Herbert, a Baltimore native who moved to Tulsa two years ago after graduating seminary in Dallas. "But from my own unique personal experience, I've seen nothing but, you know, people just opening their hearts and their hands to anyone that's new."

Public sentiment in Oklahoma seems to mirror recent NPR/Ipsos polling that finds most Americans support resettling the Afghans. But there is some loud dissent.

In multiple Facebook videos, Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman John Bennett says the party does not consider the refugees to be welcome in the state.

"Oklahomans, I encourage you to call and email the governor, call and email your legislators, and tell them: Do not allow Afghan refugees into Oklahoma," Bennett says.

A spokesperson for conservative Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt says in a statement that he "welcomes Afghans fleeing the terrorist Taliban regime to come to Oklahoma and live in the freedom we hold so dearly."

Tulsa's Republican Mayor G.T. Bynum also says he's eager to welcome the Afghans.

"I don't think the state Republican Party is speaking on behalf of most Republicans I talk to, and certainly not the elected officials," Bynum says.

The mayor has asked the city to redirect furniture bound for surplus auction to furnish refugees' new homes, and has arranged for the local transit agency to provide them with free bus passes. Bynum has even signed up for volunteer shifts himself.

"My hope is that these refugees who are coming to our city, that's what they recognize about their new home, is that this is a city where we help each other out, whether you've lived here your whole life or you just got off the plane from Afghanistan," Bynum says.

Deacon Kevin Sartorius, the local Catholic Charities CEO, says all the refugees will be greeted at Tulsa International Airport by an interfaith welcoming committee wearing shirts reading "WELCOME!" in English as well as Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's two most-spoken languages.

"I know that if my great-grandparents, who came over from Germany, had someone waiting for them with a shirt in German that said "Willkommen," I think they would have been happy and it would have put a smile on their face," Sartorius says. "So let's hope we can do the same thing for these people."

Back at the mosque, Imam Herbert says volunteers there will be cooking halal meals and simply helping their new neighbors adjust to life in the U.S.

"You know, they're coming from a different culture, a different way of life. You know, where do you go to get your food? Where do you go to get your clothes, you know? They're coming from Afghanistan — there isn't Walmart in Afghanistan," Herbert says.

Herbert says he hopes the refugees feel just as welcome in Oklahoma as he has.

He'll know soon if that wish comes true. The very first refugee touched down on Friday, with hundreds set to follow in the days and weeks to come.

Copyright 2021 Public Radio Tulsa

Chris Polansky
Chris Polansky is a journalist from New York. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York. His stories have appeared in/on Gothamist / WNYC; the NPR national newscast; Utah Public Radio; Robin Hood Radio / WHDD; The Voice of Harlem / WHCR; The Bridge; the Canarsie Courier; and the Brooklyn Eagle.