Before the pandemic, Somali immigrant Halima Farah went around knocking on doors seeking help and support for the Muslim community in Garden City, Kansas. Now, she says the Muslim population has grown so much that it’s time to try again.
Farah is one of the hundreds of immigrants who settled in Garden City to work at the Tyson Fresh Meats, Inc. meatpacking plant since it opened in 1980, 10 miles away from the city. Because of its immigrants, Finney County is one of six counties across the nation that has a majority-minority population.
Farah arrived in Garden City seven years ago and lives with her family in an apartment complex populated predominantly by Muslim immigrants and refugees.
The Muslim community in Garden City started growing in 2006, when an influx of immigrants from Somalia, Burma, and Ethiopia came to the region. The most recent influx of Muslim refugees came from Afghanistan a year ago, due to the intensifying conflicts, the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, and forced evacuation.
Garden City is now home to hundreds of Muslims, and with the population continuously growing, the Muslim community hopes to build more resources in town.
First on the community’s agenda is an official mosque. Every Friday, Muslims in Garden City gather in a small makeshift mosque they created within an apartment building for prayers. Many donate $20 for rent to maintain the space. However, it is not big enough to hold everyone.
Farah is a local Muslim community leader. After four years at Tyson, she now works as a refugee case worker at the Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas. Over the years, she has been talking to the city, working to secure land for a new mosque.
“The Somali community and the Sudanese community have been trying to get land for a masjid [mosque] or even just purchase a building for a masjid,” Farah said. “Several times, we have talked with the city. And then the city has told us ‘Oh, we’re going to start developing an area with housing and shopping malls. And that has been going on for the seven years that I have been here.”
Garden City city officials did not respond for comment in time for publication.
Because there has not been any city action, the Muslim community has taken fundraising into their own hands — making donations every month, every Eid, and every Ramadan. Now, Farah says, they have raised enough to buy property.
But buying property comes with its own challenges.
Land Shortages in Garden City
In order to develop a mosque in an existing space, zoning regulations and building codes must be met. Additionally, Farah said finding land big enough for a mosque, with parking space, has been difficult. The community has attempted to purchase several lots for sale, but so far none of the attempts have been successful.
“I found one that was big enough with a big parking lot, but the owner specifically said ‘I’m not selling it to Muslims.’” Farah said. “It’s still on sale. I think the lady from the real estate agency said, ‘that’s discrimination.’ Then he said ‘Okay, I’m gonna double the price.’ So we just let it go.”
While in this specific instance, it targeted the community, Farah said the bigger problem is not discrimination, but a shortage of open land.
This shortage of land has also affected the community’s ability to build a Muslim cemetery and find housing for incoming immigrants and refugees. While Garden City has a cemetery, traditional Islamic burial rites include specific accommodations.
For example, the bodies should be buried facing the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building at the center of Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca. Additionally, the body should be placed directly in the dirt, rather than in a coffin. These are just two of the various specifications. Currently, the closest Muslim cemetery to Garden City is in Wichita, Kansas, a three-and-a-half-hour drive.
“We tried to ask the city a few years ago, to give us land whereby we can make it as a Muslim cemetery, but we couldn’t get anything,” Farah said.
Hussam Madi, spokesperson on the board of communication for the Islamic Society of Wichita (ISW) said they reached out to the Garden City community when the area saw an influx of immigrants of various nationalities and have been in touch ever since. ISW has provided Garden City with Holy Qurans and literature. It also offers its Islamic school and services to children. However, the drive is too long for many, and Madi said resources like a cemetery should be available nearby.
“As they continue to grow and they need to practice their faith freely, they should be allowed to build a cemetery,” Madi said. “Muslims have a deep understanding and strong belief in life after death, so proper burial of the dead is a must for Muslims.”
The problems with land shortages also extend into housing for incoming immigrants and refugees. Around 100 Afghan refugees came to Garden City a year ago and many are still living in hotels because of limited housing.
According to an interview with Lona DuVall, president and CEO of Finney County Economic Development Corporation in April 2022, Finney County has a housing shortage of about 4,000 housing units, but the USDA is funding the development of more available housing.
Adjusting to a Small Town and a Call for Help
Mohammad Zia Hassani is an Afghan refugee who came to Garden City a year ago. He came to the United States by himself and now works alongside Farah as a refugee case worker for Catholic Charities.
When Hassani first arrived in Garden City, he said the people were very welcoming. He especially found comfort in the local African store.
“They’re always welcoming [of] everyone [regardless of] different religions, race. It’s really good for us.” Hassani said. “All Muslims can go there and buy foods from that shop.”
However, Hassani has faced challenges continuing his education in Garden City. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Afghanistan and wants to continue his education in Kansas, but affording an education has proven difficult because he does not qualify for in-state tuition.
“When I applied for financial aid, they denied my applications because I didn’t have my primary residence and passport when I went to the admission office,” Hassani said. “I have all the documents that I have to pay in-state tuition.”
Several states including California, Colorado, Minnesota, and Oregon have passed legislation allowing refugees to access in-state tuition. However, in Kansas, there is still a 6-month requirement to obtain lawful permanent residence.
Spreading information and distinguishing refugees who have come to the United States due to crises, from other immigrants and those deciding to attend school in a different state is a step that Hassani said would benefit many refugees aiming to receive an education.
During the time of the interview, Hassani said he had scheduled a meeting with his school’s vice-president to find a solution.
Both Farah and Hassani are using their roles at Catholic Charities to help immigrants and refugees who are in the same situation and face similar challenges.
“I love helping because as a Muslim, I have to have my other Muslim brothers or sisters,” Farah said. “Most of them have education, but they don’t know how to communicate with you, so it’s hard when you don’t know the language and then you don’t know where to go for the resources.”
Going forward, Farah and Hassani say the community welcomes any help they can get from the city or neighboring Islamic societies, asking bigger cities to remember their brothers and sisters in smaller towns.