Accepting Refugees a matter of life and death

OKLAHOMA CITY – Around 1,800 Afghan refugees are arriving in Oklahoma in the days and weeks to come. That’s the third-most in the country, after only California (5,255) and Texas (4,481).

Catholic Charities is the sole refugee resettlement agency in Oklahoma. Bipartisan support from elected officials in both parties paved the way for these refugees to face far better conditions here than what they would have experienced in their home nation.

Since airlifting at-risk Afghans began, at least 100 Afghan children were designated “unaccompanied minors,” some going to Health and Human Services-overseen shelters for undocumented migrant youth. Most of those children were quickly reunited with relatives who evacuated and relocated to the U.S. Others who have no family here will remain in the custody of HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement until they turn 18 or a suitable sponsor is located.

Public sentiment strongly supports assisting these refugees, but we need to look at how refugees have been treated over our history. In the 1830s, following a wave of government repression in Europe and a devastating famine in Ireland, 3 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. Many Americans feared this wave of refugees, primarily based on their religion – Catholicism. The resulting hostility and political strife impacted America for decades.

Each of the Five Tribes, the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole, had their own “Trail of Tears” as they were marched to Indian Territory under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Seeking refuge across today’s Oklahoma, an estimated 60,000 Native Americans from many tribal nations established roots here under forced relocation.

A century later, in the 1930s, Americans faced the question whether to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Even on the question of accepting only child refugees, Americans still said “no”: 67 percent opposed accepting 10,000 Jewish children from Germany according to a 1939 Gallup poll. With nowhere to go, many ultimately faced the Third Reich and its malevolent Concentration Camps.

Around the same time, many Oklahomans were themselves considered refugees as they fled the Dust Bowl. Several months in 1936, the Los Angeles Police Department sent 136 deputies to the California state line to turn back migrant Oklahomans without money. Bordering states like Arizona were angry that California was trying to “dump hoboes” there.

Following the fall of Saigon in the 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese families formed a refugee community in Oklahoma City that helped transform the area now known as the Asian District, where OICA’s office is located. These were people for whom the end of the Republic of Vietnam was not simply a change of government, but a matter of life and death, and included U.S. Embassy staff, military officers, merchants and professionals, ethnic Chinese, and Catholics.

The future for today’s Afghan refugees is uncertain; life here, however, will be far better. I believe America today is better than allowing ignorance, fear, and hatred to guide discussions as happened with earlier refugees.

On a side note, most children currently housed by the U.S. Refugee office currently are Central American minors who crossed the border without parents. They also fled horrific conditions and certain death, like Afghan refugees. As of late August, HHS was accommodating 14,900 unaccompanied children in shelters and some makeshift housing facilities.

Please consider what refugees of all nations face, especially the children. To assist Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City, you can visit to learn more, and help in Tulsa, go to to volunteer or donate.

About OICA: The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy was established in 1983 by a group of citizens seeking to create a strong advocacy network that would provide a voice for the needs of children and youth in Oklahoma, particularly those in the state’s care and those growing up amid poverty, violence, abuse and neglect, disparities, or other situations that put their lives and future at risk. Our mission statement: “Creating awareness, taking action, and changing policy to improve the health, safety, and well-being of Oklahoma’s children.”