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St. Louis Political, Business Leaders Gear Up To Welcome 1,000 Afghan Refugees

 St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said the region will welcome 1,000 or more people fleeing Afghanistan after they endangered themselves by supporting U.S. forces there. [8/19/21]
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said the region will welcome 1,000 or more people fleeing Afghanistan after they endangered themselves by supporting U.S. forces there.

Political and business leaders are pledging to relocate at least 1,000 Afghan refugees to the St. Louis region. Taliban forces have taken over the country in recent days after the collapse of the U.S.-backed government.

St. Louis is one of 19 locations the federal government designated as destinations for Afghans with Special Immigration Visas, which are available to individuals who worked with U.S. military forces.

“They worked alongside of our troops to help keep them safe,” Mayor Tishaura Jones said after a Thursday morning press event at the International Institute of St. Louis. “This is a debt we should repay to them.”

President Joe Biden created a $500 million fund this week to help relocate Afghan refugees. Jones said she’s working with the region’s representatives in Congress to secure some of those funds. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page issued a joint statement with Jones this week supporting the relocation of Afghans to the region.

Austin Walker, vice president of the Regional Business Council, and Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis Inc., joined Jones on Thursday.

“Let’s be clear: Immigrants make our community stronger. As we’ve seen with the Bosnian community and others, they start to build businesses and enrich our community,” Hall said. “The people and families from Afghanistan should come to St. Louis with the knowledge that they are coming to a welcoming community that wants to see them thrive, succeed and add to the fabric of our region.”

The International institute has resettled 626 Afghans in the St. Louis area since 2010, with nearly half arriving since 2018 as the U.S. accelerated its drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. The organization has already resettled more than 50 Afghans with Special Immigration Visas this year and is ramping up for a sudden increase in refugees seeking shelter in St. Louis.

“With recent developments, we know that there’s going to be a significant wave of arrivals coming our way,” said International Institute President and CEO Arrey Obenson. “We are only going to be as successful as the community that supports us.”

The International Institute scaled down its staff during the administration of President Donald Trump, who issued an executive order halting immigration from several Muslim-majority countries shortly after taking office in 2017. The organization is now racing to add caseworkers and other employees to assist with Afghan relocation efforts.

International Institute volunteer Peter Lucier, who was deployed to Afghanistan with the Marines in 2011, said veterans feel a responsibility to assist with the relocation of people who worked alongside them in Afghanistan, often at their own peril. Afghans’ past affiliation with U.S. forces now makes them potential targets for Taliban fighters and their supporters.

“America owes these people a debt for what they did for me, for my brothers and sisters who served in Afghanistan. They patrolled alongside us. They sweated with us. When it came to it they would grab weapons and shoot back at the enemy with us. And sometimes they died with us,” Lucier said. “Ignorance and prejudice [toward Afghan refugees] won’t be tolerated by people like me. These are our friends.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.