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Oklahoma Welcomes Hundreds Of Afghan Refugees — Despite The State GOP's Objections
Oklahoma is welcoming more Afghan refugees than any state besides California and Texas. The state Republican party opposes it, but elected GOP leaders are defying it and eager to help new arrivals.
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Thousands of Afghan refugees have already arrived in the U.S., and thousands more are on their way. Many are being resettled in the most populous states, California and Texas. But the state taking the third most refugees comes as a surprise, even to some people living there. From member station KWGS in Tulsa, Okla., Chris Polansky has this report.
CHRIS POLANSKY, BYLINE: In a warehouse tucked away in an industrial block of Tulsa, Kathy Clarke is digging through a big pile of bedsheets.
KATHY CLARKE: They're bringing in a bunch of stuff, and then we're sorting through it. And right now, we're doing twin sheets.
POLANSKY: This space is usually where Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma stages donations for its food pantry. But right now, Clarke is one of dozens of volunteers who are instead surrounded by mattresses, vacuum cleaners, shower curtains, anything a family might need to completely start over. Catholic Charities is the sole refugee resettlement agency in Oklahoma, which is set to accept 1,800 Afghans. Tulsa alone is due to receive 850, more than most states. Clarke, a retired college administrator, says this is an opportunity for Tulsans to make a real difference.
CLARKE: I hope that whoever sleeps on these sheets gets - has a good life. I do. They deserve it.
POLANSKY: Preparing for the arrivals here has fallen largely on the shoulders of faith leaders. Jessica Moffatt, lead pastor at the city's First United Methodist Church, unlocks the door to one of six houses her congregation is leasing to Afghans at no cost.
JESSICA MOFFATT: We just talk all the time about being aware of opportunities to provide what I call holy hospitality to anybody who comes our way.
POLANSKY: Moffatt is part of a local interfaith council, which she says has been energized by the refugee effort.
MOFFATT: And we agree on this. And there's not a lot that we can say that we all agree on.
MOHAMED HERBERT: I've seen that a lot in Tulsa.
POLANSKY: Mohamed Herbert is the imam at Tulsa's only mosque, which draws about 2,000 worshippers a week. He says the refugee situation really has brought out the best in people. Herbert, who's from Baltimore, came here two years ago after graduating from seminary in Dallas.
HERBERT: Of course, this is not to say we don't have problems. Everybody's got problems. But from my own unique personal experience, I've seen nothing but welcoming, nothing but people just opening their hearts and their hands to anyone that's new.
POLANSKY: Public sentiment in Oklahoma seems to mirror polling that finds most Americans support resettling the Afghans. But there is some loud dissent.
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JOHN BENNETT: 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.
POLANSKY: In a Facebook video, Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman John Bennett says the party wants conservative Republican Governor Kevin Stitt to reverse his pro-refugee stance. Stitt says he's excited to welcome the Afghans. Tulsa's Republican mayor, G.T. Bynum, is, too.
G T BYNUM: I don't think the state Republican Party is speaking on behalf of most Republicans I talk to and definitely not to the elected officials.
POLANSKY: Bynum has asked the city to redirect furniture bound for surplus auction to furnish refugees' new homes and has arranged for free bus passes. He's even signed up for volunteer shifts himself.
BYNUM: My hope is that these refugees who are coming to our city, that they - 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.
POLANSKY: 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.
HERBERT: 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. You know, there isn't Walmart in Afghanistan.
POLANSKY: 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 over the weekend, with hundreds set to follow in the days and weeks to come.
For NPR News, I'm Chris Polansky in Tulsa.
(SOUNDBITE OF YORDA'S "SEXCELLENCY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.