Missourians come together to welcome Afghan refugees

St. Louis will welcome more than 1,000 Afghan refugees. Columbia will resettle about 300, Springfield around 100 and Kansas City will welcome about 550

By: - November 24, 2021 8:00 am

More than 500 people participated in the Race for Refugees in St. Louis on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 in Tower Grove Park (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).

Marshall Klimasewiski and his nine-year-old daughter, Amna, were among hundreds of runners and walkers who lined up for the Race for Refugees in St. Louis on Saturday morning.

The International Institute, the city’s refugee resettlement agency, has aided thousands of people fleeing their countries during its 100 years of service, Marshall said.

And the agency is doing so again for about 1,000 new Afghan refugees coming to St. Louis.  

“It’s one of the things that we’re proud of about St. Louis,” Marshall said of the institute, “that there has been a tradition of this.”

Two weeks ago, only a couple hundred people were signed up for the race, organizers said, which had been on pause since the onset of the pandemic. But as more images of Afghan refugees coming to St. Louis appeared in the news these past weeks, the numbers more than doubled. 

“We didn’t even know that the race was going to be happening right at the same time as everyone coming in,” said race founder and organizer Heather Heuwe. “It just really highlights why this was actually started.”

About 125 refugees had arrived in St. Louis prior to the race, and now about 50 to 100 will come each week through the end of the year.

After the United States withdrew its troops from Afghanistan at the end of August, Missouri was set to receive 1,200 Afghan refugees in four of its largest cities. But that number has since grown. 

St. Louis will welcome more than 1,000 Afghan refugees. Columbia will resettle about 300, Springfield around 100 and Kansas City will welcome about 550. 

Refugee resettlement agencies — which the U.S. Department of State contracts with to provide services such as basic orientation, counseling, food, shelter and health services to refugees — normally have several weeks or months to prepare for new arrivals. But because of the immediate evacuation of Afghan refugees, they only had a few weeks before they began coming in September. 

Many of the refugees have been temporarily living on military bases getting vaccinations, background checks and medical checkups, agency leaders said.

Now as they are leaving the bases, the agencies are getting 48 hours to 72 hours notice of when new arrivals are on their way. 

“This type of just immediate response is pretty unprecedented and pretty historic,” said Dan Lester, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri. “It’s less like typical refugee resettlement and more like natural disaster response.”

Sleepless months

As Lester and his team watched the news of the United States airlifting 100,000 people out of Afghanistan in August, they had an idea that their lives were about to change pretty drastically. 

Lester’s team welcomed their first Afghan arrival at Columbia Regional Airport on Sept. 26. And since then, they’ve helped resettle 150 Afghan refugees over the course of two long sleepless months. 

Over the 45 years that the organization has been resettling refugees, the most refugees they’ve ever received in a 12-month period previously was 229, and that was during the 2015-2016 fiscal year, Lester said. 

“When you think about the fact that we’ve now welcomed 150 in just six weeks,” he said, “it’s quite a leap for us to make to have the resources to do that.”

Another 150 Afghan refugees are potentially on the way. That’s on top of the 200 refugees from other parts of the world that they’ll receive this year. 

The trickiest part has been the timing because the families don’t typically arrive at Columbia’s airport until around 10 p.m. 

“Then we’ve got to make sure they’ve got some warm winter jackets to put on and get some food in their bellies,” Lester said, “and get them into their new homes.” 

Then their days are filled with getting the families to medical appointments, getting children signed up for school and the many other aspects of getting them settled. 

One helpful tip that they’ve learned from other agencies nationwide is to work with groups or churches to sponsor a family. Many of the people coming from Afghanistan are professionals, and others are from more rural parts of the country. Having a network of people who can help them navigate the school system, job opportunities, grocery store or bus system is valuable. 

“They are making personal connections with their neighbors, and that’s going to help their success just as much as any of the services we can offer,” Lester said.

So far the community has been very supportive, he said, and the agency will continue to need that support these next few months. 

Moments of goodness

John Hooker-Taubman and his three-year-old son, Kai, finish the one-mile loop for families at the Race For Refugees in St. Louis on Nov. 20, 2021 (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).

Many of the people at the St. Louis race on Saturday were longtime supporters of the institute. But others were people like Heuwe, who had been so angered by the 2017 executive order banning refugees from several Muslim-majority countries that she decided to organize the race.  

Heuwe remembers listening to the news about the initial ban while she was running through the park.

“I just was so upset, and just like coming to tears in the park,” said Heuwe, a teacher and mother. “I needed to do something.”

That first year in 2017, they had 600 people participate in the race. And this year rivaled that number with just over 500. The race had been scheduled for this spring, but was postponed because of rising COVID numbers. 

“We’ve created a community here,” she said. “A lot of us who volunteer and organize it, and some of us who met through the race, it’s like a reunion. And with the pandemic, it made coming together even more important.”

Heuwe said she was heartbroken to hear about all the families fleeing Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban. She continues to be worried about those families, and she said gathering for the race was an important sign of solidarity.

“We’ve got moments like this where you see people want to help and there’s goodness,” she said. “It gives you a little bit of hope, for sure.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.