Coming to feel at home in a strange new place doesn’t happen overnight.
But a home-cooked meal can at least start the process off right, according to some local volunteer cooks.
“I know from growing up Palestinian, that’s how you show love. You feed somebody,” Marium Hannon said.
“That’s what we want our new neighbors to feel — loved and welcome.”
Hannon is one of several volunteers involved in a local effort to prepare traditional Afghan meals for refugees arriving in Tulsa, a project overseen by the Khan Ohana Foundation.
A few of them got together Thursday evening to cook, and many more such sessions will be coming up in the near future.
The nonprofit foundation, one of dozens of local organizations to answer the call for assistance, has been tasked with providing the first meal and a welcome bag for each of the 800 refugees who will come to Tulsa over the next several weeks.
From there, the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma will team with Food on the Move to provide each refugee three meals daily.
Khan Ohana, which is receiving help from Muslims for Mercy, has had no problem finding cooks, foundation officials said.
Almost 700 people have volunteered to help as needed with the hot meals, many of them signing up through Catholic Charities’ website.
“Everyone is so eager and excited to help,” said volunteer Nahid Egan.
“It’s inspiring and comforting at the same time,” added Crystal Isaacs, project manager for Khan Ohana — which began as a small food pantry before expanding into an organization taking on food insecurity.
Catholic Charities, the state’s official refugee resettlement agency, is providing its kitchen facilities to the group, with the owners of Middle East Market stepping in to donate food.
With Catholic Charities heading up the overall effort, Tulsa’s 800 refugees are part of a total of 1,800 approved for resettlement in Oklahoma — among the tens of thousands who were evacuated from Afghanistan in August with the U.S. withdrawal.
Since the Tulsa arrivals officially began Sept. 24, five refugees arrived over the weekend. More were expected by the end of this week.
Much larger groups should begin arriving in October.
When they arrive, refugees are met at the airport, and from there they are taken to hotels.
“The hope is that within one to two weeks, we can move them into apartments,” said Debbie Crowley of Catholic Charities.
For the duration of the hotel stays, meals will be provided.
That’s where other charity partners come in, Crowley said.
The Community Food Bank has accepted the challenge of providing breakfast, lunch and dinner for every refugee daily, with Food on the Move delivering the meals to the hotels.
It will work out to thousands of meals a week as more refugees arrive.
Jeff Marlow, Community Food Bank chef and chief culinary officer, said, “It’s actually a huge action that we’re taking on.”
He said the organization is looking for more volunteers to help and will have some paid positions available, as well.
“If you feel that you’d like to come out and be involved in this, please reach out,” he said.
Egan said refugees so far have been appreciative of the meals.
“They’ve been on a military base for weeks, and the food is not so good,” she said. “We want to them to feel like, ‘Oh, we are coming home.’ For us, that’s the goal.”
She said most volunteers for Khan Ohana are members of the Islamic Society of Tulsa. “But anyone who wants to help, we will find a way to involve them. The message we want to send to the refugees is that it is the entire community that is welcoming you, not just the Muslim community.”
Hannon, who along with fellow volunteer Layla Jabur represents Muslims for Mercy, said she feels compelled to help.
Her father, who lives in Jordan, came to the U.S. to attend Oklahoma State University, where he went on to earn a master’s degree in accounting.
“It took him six months to learn English,” she said, adding that the welcome and care he received as a newcomer were critical.
She also has family members who have relied on refugee services.
“It’s an honor to be involved, and I take great pride in it,” she said.
Preparing meals, she added, is a perfect way for her and Jabur to serve. The pair run a sideline catering business together.
“We love to cook,” Hannon said. “I always say food is my love language.”
Crowley said that with refugees likely to begin arriving in larger groups in the coming days, the slower start has been helpful.
“It’s given us a chance to get our processes worked out,” she said.
The response from local organizations and individuals has been “tremendous,” she said.
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“They’ve been on a military base for weeks, and the food is not so good. We want to them to feel like, ‘Oh, we are coming home.’ For us, that’s the goal.”
-- Nahid Egan, volunteer