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After tornadoes, Oklahoma UUs aid undocumented immigrants

Interfaith effort brings services to people who, fearing deportation, don’t seek relief.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Tornadoes ravaged areas of central Oklahoma three times in recent weeks, prompting an outpouring of support for people who were affected.

But after such events there is generally one group of people that doesn’t get noticed, or helped, much at all. Undocumented immigrants are often reluctant to ask for help, fearing deportation.

Five congregations in Oklahoma City, including First Unitarian Church, joined forces in the midst of the tornadoes to make sure that group of people gets the help it needs.

Sundra Flansburg, president of First Unitarian, is also active with an immigration task force of the local Voices Organized in Civic Engagement (VOICE), a community organizing group. She wasn’t surprised when other local immigrant advocates contacted her on Facebook shortly after the first tornado on May 19 to see how immigrants might be helped. That led to a coalition being formed by First Unitarian, St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, Holy Angels Parish, the Capitol Hill Church of the Nazarene, and Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ.

It also led to a relief fund being created by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Southern Region. As of June 5, the Southern Region Oklahoma Emergency Relief Fund had grown to $16,000. In addition, a Standing on the Side of Love fund started by First Unitarian had raised more than $4,000.

Flansburg said June 4 that four or five families had been helped directly from the funds. “I’m guessing that within the next three to four weeks we’ll have helped around 50 to 60 families,” she said. “A lot of these folks live marginal lives. Some lost jobs because their places of employment were damaged. Or their cars were damaged, and they couldn’t get to work.” She said the fund is providing gift cards for immediate needs. In one case the fund paid for roofing materials so the occupant could do his own repairs.

“Some of these folks could have gotten food from the Red Cross,” Flansburg said. “But most of them are pretty used to trying to not draw attention to themselves.”

The Rev. Jonalu Johnstone, program minister at First Unitarian, said the initial query about helping the undocumented population came from nuns at one of the Catholic churches. “These are folks we already had relationships with through our immigrant work with VOICE,” she said. “So it was natural we’d come together over tornado relief. We wanted to make sure people didn’t fall through the cracks.”

Johnstone noted that central Oklahoma was hit by tornadoes on May 19, 20, and 31. “It’s just been crazy. Luckily none of our congregants were injured, although some had property damage.” The tornadoes killed at least 20 people.

She emphasized that contributions are still being accepted for the relief funds created by the Southern Region and at First Unitarian. “Some of this recovery work will take a long time.” Any additional funds will be used for scholarships for immigrant students.

Much of the organizing for this relief effort happened through social media, from the initial query on Facebook, to the PayPal account set up through First Unitarian’s website, and then using Facebook to spread the word about the relief effort and fundraising. “It’s very exciting to have it happen that way,” Johnstone said.

An interfaith group surveys tornado damage in Oklahoma City, Okla., as it sought to provide relief to undocumented immigrants. (Sundra Flunsburg) See sidebar for links to related resources.

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