Every week since September, volunteers have gathered at the Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City at all hours of the day.
An average of 50 new Afghan evacuees have landed each week — sometimes a hundred or more. There are no “welcome home” signs, flowers or celebration, but instead snacks, a change of clothes, an extra set of arms for holding babies, quiet support, and crucial tips and tricks for their new home.
“These folks are looking for a safe haven,” said Carly Akard of Catholic Charities Oklahoma. “They fled with their lives and now we have to help build them back up.”
Since the U.S. withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan in August, the U.S. has evacuated more than 76,000 Afghan nationals to the U.S., according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As of Jan. 31, more than 68,000 Afghans relocated to the U.S. through Operation Allies Welcome have been resettled in communities across the country, in coordination with more than 290 local resettlement agencies. Approximately 8,000 are still in the process of completing their resettlement and remain in temporary housing on three military bases in the U.S.
As the resettlement effort continues across the country, coalitions of nonprofit partners, local businesses and interfaith organizations are joining together to help find housing, clothing, transportation, employment and education opportunities and cultural classes for the new arrivals, as well as for the local school teachers, employers and police who will support them.The path to a new life is lengthy, filled with red tape and new daily challenges. Local leaders say their communities have responded with open arms — the challenge is sustaining that momentum for as long as it takes to give refugees not only a place to live, but the connections they need to thrive in their new homes.
“We saw so much outpouring of love and support and energy right when the first arrivals got here,” said Veronica Laizure, Civil Rights Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations Oklahoma (CAIR-OK). “Now we’re starting to see this last push like, ‘let’s get everyone here and let’s get them settled. Let’s get them safe.’ And we just want to encourage everyone to keep that momentum because this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Warm welcome despite past
Oklahoma has welcomed more than 1,100 evacuees from Afghanistan, and expects that total to rise to more than 1,800 people by March 2022, making it the third-largest area for resettling Afghan evacuees in the United States.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt was part of a collection of state and national leaders welcoming evacuees, but advocates were wary of Oklahoma’s history dealing with issues of Muslim identity and what it would mean for the safety and wellbeing of evacuees arriving in the state.
Before white nationalists were found to be responsible for the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s Murrah federal building, media and terrorism experts quickly directed blame toward the Muslim community. As detailed in a Council on American-Islamic Relations report following the attacks, this led to a number of threats against mosques and Islamic centers, including at least one arson, verbal and physical attacks on Muslims in public and harassment at the workplace. In 2010, more than 70 percent of Oklahoma voters approved a ban on Sharia law, the religious law of Islam, though it was later overturned in federal court. In 2014, John Bennett, the current chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said that he would not tolerate Islam in the United States and called the religion “a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.” That following year, a large group of protestors at the state capitol met the local Islamic community as they came to join in prayer and celebrate the otherwise peaceful “Muslim Day at the Capitol.” Despite these incidents in recent years, Laizure said the community response had been uniformly welcoming.
“We know that Oklahoma does not have the best reputation for being welcoming to people of Islam,” she said. “But we also know that Oklahomans will pull together like none other in a crisis. We’ve seen it in disaster response after tornadoes. We’ve seen it in the response after incidents of violence like the Murrah bombing and we’ve seen it here.”
Michigan, which has had its own issues with anti-Muslim sentiment, is expecting to resettle about 1,300 Afghan allies and nationals, with five different agencies handling the resettlement in different parts of the state.
Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County (JFSWC) has been resettling evacuees for almost 45 years, and found in the last six months the number of people arriving and needing assistance at the same time was unprecedented.
“To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been this many people who arrived so quickly and needed services, all at the same time,” Mira Sussman, JFSWC resettlement program resource manager, told the NewsHour.
JFSWC is handling the resettlement of 300 Afghan individuals. People began arriving in October and are expected to continue arriving through February.