Since September 2021, Catholic Charities has moved roughly 90% of Afghan families into permanent housing — that’s nearly 900 individuals resettling in apartments and homes across the Oklahoma City metro area.  As the final group of Afghan families arrived this spring, Afghan neighbors and supporters alike began to wonder: How do we create a spirit of welcome and belonging here in Oklahoma City? How can we meet, form trusting relationships, engage in mutual learning and share our lives — in other words, how do we build community together?

Before arriving in Oklahoma City, many Afghan families experienced severe trauma, having witnessed acts of violence and the total disruption of their lives and homes, even compared to the chaos of living through four decades of war in their country. Between having to flee overnight with few to no personal possessions, being housed on military bases for weeks or months awaiting security processing, and having to live in multiple temporary locations, Afghan families settling permanently in OKC have had to rely on others for basic needs and place their trust in complete strangers.

The generosity of the Oklahoma family in responding to this historic project has been nearly overwhelming, flooding the Council on American Islamic Relations-Oklahoma office with daily calls and emails asking “What can I donate? Where can I serve? How can I help?”

Money, volunteer service and donated items are all essential to defraying the expenses in Afghan households during the process of building lives here in Oklahoma. Just as important, however, are the personal connections made as neighbors, colleagues and friends.

CAIR-OK volunteers were first introduced to Afghan neighbors while delivering halal welcome meals and baskets filled with hygiene products, cultural and religious items, as well as toys and games. Behind the scenes, supporters of CAIR-OK either donated money or purchased these distributed items, as well as culturally familiar clothing.

And that’s how neighborly relationships often begin — a simple greeting, a smile and a housewarming gift.

Over the past nine months, a community among Afghan neighbors, volunteers and staff from coalition organizations continues to slowly grow as we trust one another more deeply, share our concerns and brainstorm solutions to complicated issues together. Our volunteers have made it very clear that what has made the most significant impact on their lives is getting to know their neighbors. And that’s because these aren’t one-way exchanges of welcome, but opportunities for mutual learning about hospitality.

Volunteers are always greeted with peace and a smile, and are often welcomed in for tea. They’ve been introduced to family members and neighbors, and have shared stories and pictures of family, viewed hometowns on Google maps, learned words in Pashto and Dari — and all of this is often done without speaking the same languages.

As the material needs decrease, CAIR-OK invites you to enter this neighbor-building effort, an effort that begins with a desire to learn from and be connected to your neighbors and requires nothing more than patience, kindness, and time. Organizations like CAIR-OK, The Spero Project and Catholic Charities will give you guidance and any necessary training to introduce yourself and to get to know one another in a safe and neighborly way. We promise that your efforts will be life-changing — not only for the families you connect with, but for yourself and your own community as we learn and grow together.

Jen Hund manages the CAIR Refugee Resource Center and a team of volunteers to offer support to Afghan neighbors in the OKC metro area.