Oklahoma has received one of the largest groups of Afghan refugees in the U.S. since the crisis in 2021.
Members of The Springs Church of Christ in Edmond, Oklahoma saw an opportunity to help through their church’s resettlement assistance program. What they could not have anticipated were the interfaith friendships that would be forged with their new neighbors.
Interfaith America’s Shauna Morin and Zia Pentescu recently sat down with Kelly Osborne, Executive Minister at The Springs Church of Christ in Edmond, Oklahoma, and Maria Bashari, a teacher from Afghanistan who relocated to Oklahoma as part of a refugee resettlement program, to hear more about their work and the community they have built together.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interfaith America (IA): Let us begin by having each of you introduce yourselves. Can you tell us who you are and perhaps a few things about how you spend your time at work, at home, or in the community?
Kelly Osborne (KO): I am Kelly Osborne, and I am a minister at The Springs Church of Christ here in Edmond, Oklahoma. For the past five years or so, we have worked with several of the families that have come into Oklahoma City through the refugee program. We have helped with English, and we have worked with Catholic Charities of Oklahoma and The Spero Project. When we began serving several refugee families from Afghanistan, we were asked to teach at a transitional school, and that is how [Maria and I] met.
My background is in education and, of course, ministry. I have been in ministry now for almost 14 years and try to connect with other churches and organizations that are serving in the city. We have also connected with the Turkish community as well as with incoming families from all over the world, and we have discovered such joy in serving. It has been such an honor to work with international families through the years.
Maria Bashari (MB): I am Maria Bashari from Afghanistan. I have five children, and I spend my time at home cooking meals for my big family and being outside. I also go to several English lessons together with other Afghan women at Kelly’s house and at a local church. I am currently enrolled in English Language Learners (ELL) classes at Oklahoma City Community College in the evenings. I was a teacher in Afghanistan, and now I am a student here.
IA: Kelly, tell us about your faith background. How did it initially prompt you (or your church) to work with refugees as conversation partners?
KB: I have been in the Churches of Christ for my whole life, and early in my 20s, right after college, I spent a couple of years in Japan and taught English. And during that time, I developed a deep understanding of how difficult it is to come into a community or country and live. Compassion is a major driver for us. We can only imagine how difficult it is to begin again after leaving your country under difficult circumstances. We wanted to reach out to the Afghan community and just make them feel comfortable. We hope to be a good neighbor. You know, our major tenet is to love God and to love our neighbor, and this is a way for us to love our neighbor.
IA: Can you talk about how your church’s work in this area has evolved over time? You mention working with several partners, such as Catholic Charities and The Spero Project. How did those partnerships come to be?
KO: Our church has been helping incoming refugee families practice their English through weekly conversations for about five years. Catholic Charities of Oklahoma and The Spero Project connect us with families from all over the world. Our church has trained a team of volunteers to work with the incoming families. We pair one of our volunteers with one member of a refugee family and each week they meet to practice their English.
As you can imagine, good friendships form through these conversations, and we have the honor of walking alongside our new neighbors as they begin to make the U.S. their home. Of course, when you are practicing your English, you are also sharing about your family, sharing about what you love and your hobbies. And that has developed into a good friendship. Plus, we would have meals together as a group.
IA: I understand Oklahoma has received one of the largest groups of Afghan refugees in the U.S. since the crisis in 2021. How did you adapt The Springs’ programs and services to respond to their needs? What challenges and successes did you face in that shift?
KO: When Kabul fell and this crisis came up, we were asked, “Hey, would you pivot?” which we did. From that, we have had to be nimble because the need was so big, and our infrastructure as a city was inadequate to meet the needs of a thousand people coming in. Many churches jumped in to help incoming families find good housing, furniture and household items. So, we pivoted with Catholic Charities and with all the churches to do that – and slowly, it has gotten better. It has been a challenge: even now, [many of those who have resettled] need better jobs, and affordable housing. Anyway, we have pivoted alongside the need, and have loved the fact that we can be helpful during this time of crisis.
Our team shifted from one-on-one conversation practice to teaching English at a temporary transition school for our new Afghan neighbors. We taught the mothers of school-aged children for about six months. Once all the Afghan families were moved out of transitional housing in the hotels to apartments and rental homes, we shifted our involvement to weekly gatherings for English conversation practice in my home.
There are several Afghan families living very near me, so our team now hosts a group of eight to ten Afghan women in my home each week to practice their English, answer questions about school and culture, and have tea together. It is a great time, and there is a lot of joy and laughter as we learn from each other.
I must give a lot of credit to The Spero Project – they were the ones that, after Catholic Charities does the initial intake, ask questions like, “Do they have good jobs? Do they have good education for their children?” Spero was the one that made a transitional school, and just did a wonderful job pivoting. All the churches were saying, “What can we do to help?” And they were able to say, “Here’s what you need to do.” Some churches took in housing items, clothing; there were sources to get free clothing and other necessities. Others addressed education, which we leaned into. We were going to offer English regularly. Then others were helping with sponsorship where they connected Afghan families with American families. The American families would go and help them get furniture and household supplies for their apartments or rental homes. It was a challenge and a lot of work.
IA: Maria, tell us about your transition to live in Oklahoma City and the U.S. What were your earliest experiences with Kelly and others from her church? Was there anything about these encounters that surprised you?
MB: We left Kabul on the last U.S. flight. We stayed in Qatar and Germany for several months before we came to U.S. on December 17, 2021. We stayed in a refugee camp at Fort Dix in New Jersey for two months and then arrived in Oklahoma City on February 16, 2022. We stayed in a hotel for almost three months. Living in the U.S. was a big cultural shock for me. I met Kelly in the Epic Transitional School for the first time. She is a kind and helpful woman, with a big heart. She is a giver. She is representing God on earth the right way. She helped many Afghan women and children. Kelly took me to her church, and it was my first time going to a church. I liked the way they get together and eat in a large group, just like Afghans. I was surprised to see Kelly with the apron giving out food to everyone in the church.
IA: Tell us about your faith background. How has it shaped relationships that have been forged between the Afghan women in your group and volunteers from The Springs?
MB: I am a Muslim, and I believe in one God. I believe Muslims, Christians and Jews are all siblings. We received a warm welcome from volunteers. Now, we feel like we are home. We have them as our relatives and friends now. They made our life easier for all of us. They help us and teach us regularly. My husband teaches at Oklahoma University (OU); my kids go to the public schools in Edmond, Oklahoma. Kelly checks on us every day, making sure we are fine. She has a good husband [John]. John helped my husband find a job at OU. Kelly invites us to her church on U.S. holidays, like Fourth of July and Halloween. God bless Kelly and her husband.
KO: Maria went to the mosque for the first time just recently, because in Afghanistan only the men can go. So that has been an interesting change.
MB: It was the first time in my life that I went to a mosque, here in Oklahoma. We [women] cannot go to the mosque in Afghanistan.
IA: How do you feel at the mosque?
MB: Happy; good, very good. In Afghanistan, women cannot go to the mosque. But the men cannot go either, because the mosque is not safe, for both men and women. I am 42 years old, and this is the first time in my life that I can go to the mosque. I am very happy.
IA: It sounds like some meaningful friendships have emerged between the two of you and other women in this group. What have people learned from or about each other? What has made that learning possible?
KO: I have learned that the Afghan families are very good families, and you can tell that the children are well loved. Very good families supporting each other. There is a great sisterhood amongst the women. The Afghan community itself is incredibly good to each other. Maria and Faraz will go on the weekends and visit all the different families and communities to say, “How are you doing? How can we help?” They are very mindful of each other, very good about sharing what they have. I have been really impressed with how they care for each other. Maria, what have you learned of Americans?
MB: We have a cultural exchange class at Kelly’s house. Sometimes, we even cook together. We had a cooking class last week. We have learned a lot of things. Of course, you are truly kind, and honest, and you are very brave. We have learned a lot of things from you, and you have helped a lot of people, Afghan people.
KO: Well, we think you are brave. So brave.
IA: Kelly, given that you have a leadership role in your church, the others who are involved in this, what are they sharing with you? What learning moments or meaningful takeaways have there been for them as a part of this work?
KO: You know, one of the women that comes and works on Thursday mornings, she said to me, “I feel like this is God’s work, because this is so good. When you are doing something that is just … you just know … This is what God would want, how God would want us to treat His children.” This is what she said today, and I said, “I totally agree.” It is a decent work, an honor to be part of it, and it fills us with joy. That is the other part. It is joyful work, even though it is challenging work. I mean, we have all been brokenhearted about what has taken place in their lives, but we are happy and joyful to help them in any way we can as they rebuild.
IA: Is there anything that you think has made that possible, or made it possible for this to be such a learning experience and such a joyful experience?
KO: I feel like the key to it was not being too insular as a church. We already had our heads up; in that we are seeing what is happening outside of us. It is easy for churches to just think about themselves, and there’s always enough to do, a lot to do within a congregation or within a group of faith. There is lots of need … but to have a little bit of, like, what’s happening in Oklahoma City? What’s happening in our state? Where would God want us to go and to be his hands? Since we were already doing that, we were in a trusted place where we could help. If we had not been doing that when the crisis hit, I don’t know that anybody would have trusted us yet. I think being in a position where we’re already reaching out and thinking outside of ourselves helped us to be able to do this at this time.
IA: Have there been opportunities for interfaith conversations through this experience?
KO: We’ve talked a little about God, here and there, you know. We always pray for each other, too. Like I’m always saying, your mother is praying for me, and I’m praying for your mother. You know, we’re praying for each other. I think the Afghan families feel comfortable [talking about God], but I do know it’s a tender place. I don’t want anyone to feel stepped on. So … we’ve been tender about it as well.
IA: Maria, do you feel that there is an interest among the Afghan women to share a little bit about their faith with their English conversation partners? Or is it something people prefer to keep to themselves?
MB: Yes, they want to talk about God. They’re interested. One day, when it’s good for us, we can talk about God, like we talked about cooking. Let’s talk about that. We will talk about your religion, our religion.
IA: As you know, our organization is called Interfaith America. What does “interfaith America” mean to you? How is the work you’re doing part of that interfaith America?
KO: For me, I think the work you’re doing now makes it possible for us all to connect and see outside of ourselves. [With] a conversation across the table or a meal that is shared, you quickly realize how much we have in common, and how many beautiful people are from all over the world and from all different religions and languages, and it just makes life so much richer if we were to do it together. Just like in a palette, you wouldn’t want just one color, you want to array of colors. It makes such a richer portrait. It’s the same with life. It’s so much fun, you know? Life is better together!
MB: We’re sharing some experience, religions, culture. All the Afghan people are interested: what are your religions? What is your culture? Because everything is new for them. Everything is new for Afghan people [in the U.S.]. But everything is good now.
KO: And you need to also share your culture with us, too, so we can learn together.