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Oklahoma support organizations work to provide Afghan refugees with halal food

 Grocery carts full of food are ready to be distributed at the Urban Mission pantry in Oklahoma City.
Hannah France
Grocery carts full of food are ready to be distributed at the Urban Mission pantry in Oklahoma City.

It’s a little before 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and a line of cars is stretching out of the Urban Mission pantry’s parking lot into the street on Portland Avenue in Oklahoma City.

Executive director German Garcia directs the flow of traffic.

“We're a drive-thru system, but we put the baskets together in real time. We package some of the dry goods together ahead of time, but someone's putting in meat, someone's putting in breads, dairy items and stuff like that as we have an assembly line that goes through here, the cars go to the back and we load it into their car,” Garcia said.

Garcia said each day the pantry is open, the boxes of food given to each car end up feeding 250 households. Of those, about 20 are households of Afghan refugees.

Until recently, the pantry partnered with organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Catholic Charities to put together boxes of halal food for volunteers to deliver to Afghan refugee households.

But Garcia said a recent decline of food supply, fewer monetary donations and strain on the pantry led to the end of the home-delivery program. The pantry still provides halal food to Afghan refugees and other Muslim households who can make it to the drive-thru.

“We rely on people having to make it here to get the food. When they do come in, they do come in maybe like two or three families per car,” Garcia said.

The Urban Mission pantry isn’t the only organization working to provide Oklahoma’s Afghan refugees with halal food. Lans Rothfusz, a volunteer with the Norman Coalition for Refugee Support, said his experience trying to connect Afghan refugees with halal food has been disjointed.

“There were places to find food, food pantries and that sort of thing, but it relied so heavily on volunteers to coordinate and organize that. And there was never really one overriding organizer for finding those resources. So we were left to our own devices, and it put a toll not only on the Afghans themselves, but on the volunteers trying to make the program work,” Rothfusz said.

Rothfusz also said the language barrier creates difficulties for organizations trying to help Afghan refugees access resources available to them.

“We got them all on SNAP, we got them on WIC, but getting them the instructions about what they can buy on WIC and what they can buy on SNAP. We had to do our own translations to get it into Pashto. It's hard enough in English. So just multiply that by trying to do that in a foreign language like Pashto,” Rothfusz said. 

Some Afghan refugees are addressing the language barrier themselves. Abdul Weqar Ahsas was an interpreter for the United States before the fall of Kabul, and now lives in Norman with his wife and their six young children. He said his skills have helped them and other refugee families access resources like SNAP and WIC.

“It's just easier for me. I help with other families here around Oklahoma with the interpretation. I have some people that has my number like who they know me from Oklahoma City. We lived in the hotel. So they got my number and they will call on me for the interpretation when they need help,” Weqar Ahsas said.

Weqar Ahsas’s family received halal food from local organizations, but he said just because the food technically met his family's dietary restrictions didn’t mean it was food his family wanted to eat.

“There were beans. Yeah, Afghans like beans. There were like, rice. We like rice. But most of the time, there were something like the Afghan doesn't use to it or doesn't like it. You know, they have not eaten it at all,” he said.

Currently, The Urban Mission pantry is open just two days a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. With more resources, Garcia hopes to be able to expand their services to help Afghan refugee families and other families with dietary restrictions choose their own food.

“Our dream would be that our third day would be a client client choice distribution day. And that sort of approach would be a lot more beneficial to our Afghan families, our immigrant families who have dietary restrictions because they will get to come in. It is set up like a grocery store where you go aisle by aisle and choose the items you want,” Garcia said.

Organizations like the Urban Mission pantry need support to make that a reality. Recently, Democratic State Representative Jared Deck led an interim study to explore how the state government and local organizations can work together to connect Afghan refugees with halal food.

Hannah France is a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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