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St. Louis leaders seek help making the region a destination for Afghan refugees

Jerry Schlichter, a local attorney and Arch Grants founder, speaks to community members and the media on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, at the International Institute in Tower Grove East.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Arch Grants founder Jerry Schlichter speaks to community members and the media on Wednesday at the International Institute in St. Louis. A group of local organizations has fully funded a multiprong program to resettle Afghan refugees in St. Louis.

St. Louis religious, business and philanthropic organizations are working on a plan to make the region a primary destination for Afghan refugees.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis, the International Institute, the business nonprofit ArchGrants and other groups announced today that they aim to help refugees already in the area and attract other Afghans to St. Louis by offering housing assistance, business grants and other services.

The group also plans to establish an Afghan newspaper and chamber of commerce to serve the new residents, along with soccer fields and a community center.

“Throughout our history, immigrants have been vital to the success of America, and to St. Louis,” said attorney Jerry Schlichter, founder of the nonprofit startup competition Arch Grants. “The immigrants St. Louis has welcomed over the years have brought a work ethic along with an infusion of their unique culture that have strengthened neighborhoods and made our community a better place to live.”

In the past year, St. Louis has resettled 538 Afghans who arrived in the U.S. from their war-torn country. Since then, nonprofits have worked to find homes for displaced refugees, many of whom temporarily lived in hotels.

The fully funded initiative will provide the money to house hundreds of Afghan families in the region for a year, International Institute President Arrey Obenson said.

Housing newly arrived refugees is among the institute’s biggest challenges, he said. Many landlords require renters to pay one month's rent and a security deposit, have a rental history and pass a background check. That can be an impossible challenge for those who have just arrived in the country with little more than the clothes they are wearing.

Obenson hopes to use the money from the initiative to fund a block of housing for Afghan people.

“If we can find them in one place, the better, because we can create a community for the Afghans and we can provide services for them,” he said. “Now, that's a short-term strategy. In the long term, we hope that our goal would be to actually acquire property that can actually be used for resettlement purposes and actually build a community around it.”

In November, the International Institute received a $1.5 million grant from the Pershing Charitable Trust to help settle Afghan refugees in St. Louis. But many others need help, as about half of the 31,000 Afghan evacuees relocated from U.S. military bases have found new homes in the U.S.

Schlichter said local donors have committed more than $1 million to the project, although he declined to give more details about how much the initiative cost. He hopes other business leaders donate to the project.

St. Louis has a chance to create a thriving immigrant community similar to that of Bosnian refugees, who arrived a generation ago, he said.

Welcoming refugees also makes good business sense, Schnucks supermarket President Todd Schnuck said.

“We’ve been losing ground to other cities, because our population as a region has been stagnant,” he said. “We have an opportunity to reverse this trend, but we have to act now.”

Obenson expects the number of Afghan refugees in the city will soon double to more than 1,500 people. He and other community leaders want the region to become a destination for Afghan people and say that could attract more refugees from other parts of the United States.

Moji Sidiqi, a local activist originally from Afghanistan, speaks to community members and the media on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, at the International Institute in Tower Grove East during an announcement that a group of local organizations have fully funded a multi-prong program to resettle Afghan refugees to St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Moji Sidiqi, a local activist originally from Afghanistan, speaks to community members and the media on Wednesday at the International Institute in Tower Grove East. Community leaders announced that local organizations have fully funded a multiprong program to resettle Afghan refugees to St. Louis.

Many refugees have the bare necessities — food and shelter — but want to connect with people who share their language and culture, said local advocate Moji Sidiqi, who came to the U.S. from Afghanistan as a child.

“I think back to when I came here 22 years ago, and these types of efforts would be so exciting at the time,” Sidiqi said. “To have a newspaper … I know my mom will freak out when she hears about that!”

Those organizing the effort to help the St. Louis region welcome more Afghans say the federal government could make the Midwest a primary destination for refugees if communities support them. To provide that support, organizers are seeking volunteers to help provide transportation, job opportunities, access to medical care, assistance setting up apartments and office support.

“We want to accommodate as many Afghan immigrants as possible, and finding adequate housing is our biggest challenge right now,” said Obenson of the International Institute. “Having additional resources allows us to help establish St. Louis as a preferred destination for Afghan immigrants and sends a message to immigrants from other countries that they will be welcomed to our region.”

They are asking faith leaders, businesspeople and philanthropists to help marshal resources for incoming Afghans.

“Immigrants play an important role in our future and in providing growth and expansion in our communities,” Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski said. “Our moral compass, our compassion as human beings calls on all of us to welcome and support our fellow people, especially those in need."

Touting Missouri’s more affordable housing and lower costs of living, the initiative aims to attract thousands of Afghans who are living in Texas, California and other more expensive areas.

“We can either grab this one-time opportunity or we can let it pass us by,” Schlichter said. “I believe, with this community wide effort, we can attract a critical mass of Afghan refugees, which will then bring secondary migration from other cities, and demonstrate that we are the country’s most welcoming community.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.