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Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum Speaks With KWGS About Welcoming Afghan Refugees

City of Tulsa
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum speaks at a Sept. 15, 2021, naturalization ceremony for new U.S. citizens at Tulsa City Hall

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum spoke by phone with Public Radio Tulsa's Chris Polansky about his support for resettling Afghan refugees, his state party's opposition, and what the city is doing to aid in the effort. (This interview was edited for length.)


PUBLIC RADIO TULSA: So Tulsa is taking more than 800 of these refugees. That's more than most states. And Oklahoma is taking the third most of any state. What was your reaction when you heard those stats?

G.T. BYNUM: I was really pleased with it, because I think it's a reflection of the philanthropic spirit that we have here in Tulsa and in Oklahoma. You know, we like to pride ourselves as America's most generous city here in Tulsa, and that's not just about philanthropic giving. That's about being there for our neighbors who are in need, whether they are our neighbors that we've always lived with or our new ones. So I thought it was a real point of pride for us.

PRT: Catholic Charities is seeking volunteers. I saw you on social media, you were encouraging Tulsans to sign up and you also said you signed up yourself. What sort of things are you doing?

BYNUM: Yeah, I signed up and basically told them whatever it is they think I can do to be of help, I want to. Whatever the city can do to be of help, we want to. You know, we've done everything so far, as a city government, from, I'm all signed up, I want to be there to welcome people when they get here, but we also went through our surplus warehouse and we've found furniture that they're going to be able to use in apartments for people when they get here, which normally we would be, you know, auctioning off at a surplus auction. Instead, we're able to use this furniture for the new refugee community coming here.

We also worked with our transit authority to make sure that people will have bus passes so they can use our public transit system that we have here in Tulsa. I've told Catholic Charities that they are, they're running the response on this, but we at the city want to do whatever we can to be supportive to them in this, and they have our full support.

PRT: Public opinion seems pretty overwhelmingly supportive of welcoming these people, um, but there are a few notable exceptions. The state Republican Party says in no uncertain terms that they do not want any Afghan refugees in Oklahoma, they are not welcome. You're a Republican -- how do you respond to that messaging from your state party?

BYNUM: Well, this is yet another instance where I don't think the state Republican Party is speaking on behalf of most Republicans I talk to, and definitely not to the elected officials. I mean, I think our Gov. Kevin Stitt has just done a tremendous job of showing the kind of charity that I think most of our faith community here in Oklahoma believes in, regardless of what the partisan political consequences of that might be. Amongst the elected officials in Oklahoma, the people who've actually won elections in the Republican Party, I think there is strong support for this and I'm really proud of the way that leaders, elected leaders, in our state have responded to this without the xenophobia that might be expected from a caricature notion of what Oklahoma Republicans are.

I think our elected officials have shown what Oklahoma Republicans are really about, which is showing that, believing in the sanctity of life and helping others is not just a plank in a platform, it is actually something that we can use our jobs to help real people who are in desperate need, and in desperate need because they've supported our country.

PRT: When these people get here, what do you hope their first impression of Tulsa is?

BYNUM: Well, I think what makes us unique as a city is that, you know, you think about the way that Tulsa has continued to endure and thrive over almost 200 years at this point, since we were formed, by the way, by Native Americans driven out of their homeland. The Muscogee Nation, which founded our city at the end of the Trail of Tears. That's literally the origin story of Tulsa, is people being forced out of their homeland.

And then you think of all the challenges that Tulsa has gone through in almost those two centuries now. Being in Tornado Alley. Being on a river that floods all the time. Being reliant on a boom-and-bust industry as our major energy sector. And just in the last few years being hit with tornados, flooding, a global pandemic, you know, polar vortex, a cyberattack -- and yet through all of that, we continue to thrive and endure because we help one another.

That is in our DNA as a city, and my hope is that that's what they recognize about their new home, is that this is a city where we help each other out whether you've lived here your whole life or you just got off the plane from Afghanistan. We are here to help you and your family lead the best life that you can here in Tulsa.


Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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