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St. Louis prepares to welcome and help resettle more Afghan and Ukrainian refugees

Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute, speaks to community members and the media on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, at the International Institute in Tower Grove East. Jerry Schlichter, a local attorney and Arch Grants founder, alongside 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
Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute, said it is working with a coalition of community organizations, faith leaders and volunteers to help refugees, and ready to welcome more.

The International Institute of St. Louis is preparing to welcome more people from Afghanistan, Ukraine and other countries, following a visit from federal partners.

Officials with the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the International Nonprofit Immigrant Organization met with International Institute officials Monday. In the past year, the institute has led efforts in the St. Louis region to welcome refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

“St. Louis has made it known that our region is a place where immigrants can flourish once they arrive,” said Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis. “We're ringing the welcome bell, once again, as thousands of Afghans are looking for new homes right now. And we could say the same of Ukrainians with the ongoing war.”

The more than 600 Afghan immigrants resettled to the St. Louis area since last September are among more than 80,000 Afghans who have arrived in the U.S., an unprecedented feat for a yearlong timeframe, said Larry Bartlett, director of refugee resettlement for the State Department. He said St. Louis has welcomed many refugees so far but has faced the same challenges that other communities did.

“There's not a lot of affordable housing, so moving people into housing, long-term permanent housing, helping them find jobs, helping get kids into school, all of that can take some time,” Bartlett said. “There were some pain points, I think those have largely been overcome.”

Bartlett said 96% of Afghan immigrants who arrived in the U.S. have been moved out of temporary housing and into permanent housing.

“We've been spending a lot of time over the last six or more months, looking at how to process refugees faster,” Bartlett said. “Normally, it takes more than two years to process a refugee. We're trying to speed that up.”

The St. Louis area is still awaiting about 380 Afghans who fled Afghanistan and are awaiting U.S. visas to St. Louis. International Institute leaders expect up to 900 Ukrainians also will arrive in the region over the coming year.

The arrival of more families from Ukraine, Afghanistan and other countries will help strengthen the region’s business community, said Jason Hall, CEO of the business organization Greater St. Louis Inc.

“They are a thriving part of who we are, and we value the fact that they make this community stronger,” Hall said. “We have an urgent need, as an older industrial city in the Midwest, to grow our population. This is the way forward, folks, and we have got to embrace it.”

Obenson said the institute has been building a coalition of community organizations, faith leaders and volunteers to help refugees that launched last fall.

“We are able to match with families as they arrive, to fill the gaps that will exist, or to meet the needs, as families arrive in this community,” Obenson said.

Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.