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$1.5 million grant will help the International Institute resettle more Afghan refugees

The International Institute has received a $1.5 million grant to help it settle Afghan refugees in St. Louis.

An International Institute volunteer loads up a truck with donations of household goods for Afghan refugees. More than 800 volunteers have assisted with the International Institute's effort to relocate 1,000 people.
International Institute
An International Institute volunteer loads a truck with donations of household goods for Afghan refugees. More than 800 volunteers have assisted with the International Institute's effort to relocate 1,000 people.

Pershing Charitable Trust donated the money, which will go toward basic expenses for Afghan refugees like food, furniture and rent.

Its gift was a response to the International Institute’s request to the St. Louis community for a total of $3.5 million in donations, not just for basic expenses but also for developing transitional housing, offering job training and other projects.

“It’s more than just resettlement,” International Institute President Arrey Obenson said of his organization’s goals. “It’s really helping the Afghans succeed in this community. The next step is education and also career development and loans, because we want to get them into the workforce.”

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said in August that the city would accept 1,000 refugees, following the collapse of the U.S.-supported government in Afghanistan at the hands of Taliban fighters. The refugees are families of U.S. allies who qualified for special visas by working alongside American troops in Afghanistan.

Business leaders joined Jones in welcoming the refugees. “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,” Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis Inc., said at the time.

After about two months of soliciting donations and recruiting volunteers, International Institute workers have begun resettling Afghan refugees quickly. The agency welcomed 61 people last week and at least another 123 this week, Obenson said. The organization had never settled more than 99 people in a single week before.

More than 800 volunteers are involved, packing up items like housewares and toiletries for eventual use by Afghan refugees. The International Institute also has received $60,000 in donated gift cards, nearly half of which it already has distributed.

“Too often we focus on the things that are wrong with our community and we fail to see what’s right. And if there’s a moment when we can celebrate this community, this is the time,” Obenson said. “Because we couldn't be here without the community standing up in the way that they have.”

Arrey Obenson will become the next president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis on February 1.
International Institute of St. Louis
International Institute of St. Louis
International Institute President Arrey Obenson says his agency will resettle more refugees this week than it has in any single week.

International Institute officials are circulating a detailed request for donations among private foundations and other grant-makers. In it, the organization states that the federal government reimbursement for 1,000 refugees will come to more than $1.1 million, less than half of what the agency needs.

The $1.5 million grant from Pershing Charitable Trust will cover most of that gap. But the International Institute is also looking to build up its capacity to help it respond to this and future crises, after scaling down its staff during the administration of former President Donald Trump, who issued an executive order halting immigration from several Muslim-majority countries shortly after taking office in 2017.

Last year, the International Institute helped about 135 refugees start new lives in St. Louis, down from 1,000 in 2016. The refugee total stayed relatively low in part because of travel restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

A recent $200,000 donation from the Lutheran Foundation will fund IT upgrades for the International Institute's office and two new staff positions. Commerce Bank and Enterprise Holdings each donated $150,000, Obenson said.

“It really makes us a better, stronger organization that can respond to needs as time goes on. It makes us become more sustainable — that’s the word — as an organization,” Obenson said.

International Institute leaders would also like to convert a former convent on its property into transitional housing for 60 to 80 refugees, a project they estimate will cost at least $350,000.

Follow Jeremy on twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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