Many people from Afghanistan have arrived to the United States through Operation Allies Welcome (OAW) Response. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, resettlement agencies around the country had to work rapidly with federal partners, health systems, public health practitioners, social service, and community-based organizations to support newly arrived Afghans. Newly arrived Afghans are simultaneously adapting to a new life, contributing skills to their new communities, securing public benefits, seeking opportunities for the adults and children in their families, experiencing ongoing challenges related to the trauma of sudden displacement, and navigating health care as English language learners in new systems.
One notable public health challenge that Afghan newcomers may face during and after resettlement is access to culturally and religiously appropriate meals, food pantries, and necessities. Many Afghan newcomers follow a halal diet. In Arabic, halal translates to “permitted or lawful.” Halal food adheres to Islamic dietary guidelines. Food options like halal meat are not easily accessible at conventional groceries stores, making it difficult for newly arrived Afghans to access food for their families that is nutritious, culturally appropriate and affordable.
Providing Halal Meals and Culturally Appropriate Welcome Kits to Afghan Families in Oklahoma City
The Oklahoma Chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations Oklahoma (CAIR Oklahoma) is addressing post-resettlement food insecurity among newcomers in Oklahoma City. Food pantries make efforts to bridge the food access gap, however most items provided are unfamiliar to newcomers from Afghanistan or they may not be culturally appropriate and religiously sensitive (e.g. halal).
CAIR Oklahoma is a grassroots civil rights and advocacy organization with chapters across the United States. Its Oklahoma City chapter, CAIR Oklahoma, has been actively promoting understanding of Islam, protecting civil rights, and building coalitions for 17 years. Historically, Oklahoma has been a smaller refugee resettlement state but has received the third-highest number of Afghan newcomers per capita. In 2021, CAIR Oklahoma partnered with the nonprofit social service agency Catholic Charities to welcome over 1,000 Afghans within a six-month period. With a listen and learn approach, the CAIR Oklahoma team leveraged established relationships with local Muslim communities and refugee agencies to guide how to identify and address immediate needs and public health messaging that was culturally, linguistically, and religiously relevant.
The first phase of CAIR Oklahoma’s response were halal meals and welcome kits delivered to people from Afghanistan when they first arrived in the US at their hotel. CAIR Oklahoma partnered with a local Muslim-owned restaurant to provide 1,007 halal meals. A cohort of CAIR Oklahoma volunteers picked up and delivered the halal meals so that Afghan refugees would have something familiar to eat as their first meal. The team also collected community donations to distribute welcome kits containing general hygiene necessities such as hand-held bidets, cultural and religious items like copies of the Holy Quran, prayer rugs, beads, and other culturally familiar items and comfortable clothing. To accommodate distributions of donations from throughout the country, CAIR Oklahoma partnered with a local church and set up resource rooms for people to come in and out to pick up items.
The hotel rooms where families were staying did not have kitchens. During this time CAIR Oklahoma partnered with a local Muslim-run food pantry to provide families with snack boxes while they lived in the hotel. The snack boxes contained supplemental food items that were not part of a meal, but instead snacks that could be eaten between meals without being cooked or heated.
These early initiatives for CAIR Oklahoma led to the creation of a halal-serving food program to serve Afghan families. CAIR Oklahoma partnered with The Urban Mission Pantry, a local food pantry to provide halal food boxes. One of their community partners trained the pantry on food items that were acceptable in a halal diet. The food pantry did not source halal meat from butchers but made sure that everything in the box was halal. Over time they learned that the community was not using a lot of the prepackaged food so newcomers were able to request produce-only boxes.
To get halal food boxes to people, CAIR Oklahoma set up a system in which they sent the necessary information, such as name, address, and number of people in the household to the pantry 24 hours ahead of time and would have volunteers pick up and deliver the boxes. Eventually, they also created an online form so community members and caseworkers could request boxes themselves. Public transportation in Oklahoma is very limited so it was important that they had volunteers to deliver all of the food boxes to families.
CAIR Oklahoma’s Refugee Services Coordinator Jen Hund said they were able to do this work without any previous work in refugee support because they have years of experience building strong community partnerships throughout the state. They worked with the community partners to better serve refugees, by providing an understanding of sociocultural, ethnic, and religious beliefs. Key partners included local agencies, providers, community organizations, inter-faith groups (churches, mosques, temples), community volunteers, members of the Afghan community and recent newcomers. CAIR Oklahoma was able to effectively communicate, collaboratively identify needs, and deliver community-informed services that foster a sense of safety, security, familiarity and belonging.
“[We have done] a good job of cultivating those relationships and making sure that people know our gratitude and appreciation,” said Hund. “When we put something together, we do it thoughtfully and intentionally so that people know that we’re good stewards of money and time so that people know that when they get involved with something that CAIR does, it’s going to be well-organized, they’re going to really understand their role in it, they’re going to feel safe, in terms of understanding what expectations are and what boundaries are, and that they’re going to be transformed in some way because of it.”