Refugee welcome teams stay ready to roll, assist arriving Afghans: 'The 20 minutes you're with them is just so precious'

Tulsa World
Tim Stanley

A good welcome doesn’t always require a lot of words.

As she’s greeted arriving Afghan refugees over the last few weeks, Karen Pirtle has had that truth reaffirmed for her more than once.

“The very first woman that came through (at Tulsa Airport) was a single mom,” Pirtle said. “She walked in, and I was holding a thing with her name on it and I said ‘salaam’ — and she just hugged me. She just grabbed me and hugged me.”

Pirtle, a missions minister with South Tulsa Baptist Church, wasn’t expecting that. But she returned the hug, along with a big smile.

When the refugees arrive, they have no idea what to expect, Pirtle said. Whatever military base they come from, “they’re scared when they come in,” she said. “They don’t know if anyone is going to even be at the airport.”

“I think this woman was just so relieved we were there,” she added.

In the weeks since, there have been many scenes like that one, Pirtle said.

South Tulsa Baptist — in partnership with Catholic Charities, which is heading up the overall resettlement effort — has been in charge of welcoming Afghan refugees at Tulsa Airport since arrivals began in September.

As of Saturday, about 170 refugees are now in Tulsa, out of a projected 850 who will eventually be sent there for resettlement in eastern Oklahoma. 

STBC volunteers have been joined by a variety of groups in the welcoming effort, including scout troops and high school students.

“It begins with Catholic Charities, but then everybody’s come together on this,” Pirtle said. “It is multicultural, multi-church. That’s been one of the coolest things. It has crossed barriers of every kind on every level.”

Tulsa’s 850 refugees are part of a total of over 1,800 approved for resettlement in Oklahoma — among the tens of thousands evacuated from Afghanistan with the U.S. withdrawal.

Arrivals so far in Tulsa include a few dozen children, who are now enrolled in virtual school with Tulsa Public Schools.

Serving immigrants and refugees has long been a missional focus of STBC, and the church has organized follow-up activities for the Afghans in addition to the welcomes. That included a recent baby shower for the pregnant mothers.

But it all starts at the airport.

Coordinating with volunteer teams of interpreters and drivers arranged through Catholic Charities, the welcomers are part of what’s become “a pretty well-oiled machine,” Pirtle said.

How much advance notice they’ll have, they never know. It could be a few days or a just a couple of hours. 

Regardless, team members are ready to roll.

Every arriving refugee is greeted with a bag of snacks and water, with children each receiving a teddy bear.

From there, they are escorted to get their bags and then to a waiting driver, who will take them to the hotel where they will be temporarily housed.

It’s not a lot of time, but “the 20 minutes you’re with them is just so precious,” said the Rev. Eric Costanzo, STBC pastor. “I think every single one of them has been meaningful.”

Like Pirtle, Costanzo has experienced countless moments he will never forget.

“My youngest daughter, who is 8, and a little Afghan girl about her age — they just bonded from the moment they saw each other at the airport,” he said. “They can’t talk to each other. They just laughed and smiled. My daughter handed her a teddy bear. The little girl had on two gold necklaces, just little charm necklaces, and she took one off and gave it to my daughter.”

The two, despite the language barrier, have become fast friends, he said.

“That’s been so good to see,” Costanzo added. “We Facetimed last night and they literally were just giggle, giggle, giggle.”

Oklahoma’s Afghan refugee total ranks third highest among all states, with only Texas and California receiving more. 

“Our church has been involved in receiving and serving newly arriving refugees for years, and it is a big deal for Oklahoma to get this huge amount,” Costanzo said. “In a typical year, our state wouldn’t even get 500 refugees. And we’re going to get 800 just in Tulsa in a matter of months.”

But Costanzo isn’t worried. As Tulsa has proven through the first stage of arrivals, it’s more than up to the challenge.

“We’re so thankful for the Tulsa community,” he said. “It really makes us feel proud to be Tulsans.”

Refugee welcome teams stay ready to roll, assist arriving Afghans: 'The 20 minutes you're with them is just so precious' | Tulsa World