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As Afghan refugees face a hard landing in St. Louis, nonprofit leaders form Refugee Command Center

SayedSafiullah Abdali (left) has been in living in his apartment for one week now. But he says his family needs more support from the International Institute and St. Louis community. We'll hear from him on Thursday's program. His family from right: SayedFrogh, 12, SayedFaridin, 14, his wife Basira, daughter Adebasana, 2, and eldest, SayedFaisal, 16.  2021 Dec.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
SayedSafiullah Abdali (right) has been in living in his apartment for one week now. But he says his family needs more support from the International Institute and St. Louis community. We'll hear from him on Thursday's program. His family from right: SayedFrogh, 12; SayedFaridin, 14; his wife, Basira; daughter Adebasana, 2; and eldest, SayedFasisal, 16.

Sayed Safiullah Abdali is one of more than 300 Afghan refugees who have arrived in St. Louis since Kabul collapsed.

He, his wife and four children once called Kabul home. Abdali worked as a housekeeper for the U.S. Embassy and as a bank teller.

He came to St. Louis expecting a modern life, as he calls it. So far, he’s been disappointed. The Dutchtown apartment the International Institute of St. Louis settled his family in a week ago is sparse — two futons (one missing a seat cushion), a side table and a kitchen table that seats four for his family of six.

They’re using a blanket as a rug for the wood floors and already saw a mouse in the house.

“We never had mice in Kabul,” Abdali said.

He feels ashamed to show his living situations in video calls to his family back in Afghanistan and says he’s lacking what he calls basic necessities: cash, WiFi and a car. He says he’s seen the reports of donations flooding the International Institute but doesn’t know where to find them.

“We are not beggars. In my belief, we are now American,” he said.

Abdali and his family have found themselves leaning on House of Goods, a charity arm of the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis.

Lisa Grozdanic, House of Goods task manager and outreach coordinator, said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air that her organization is the one feeding and clothing many Afghan refugees while they wait in hotels for the International Institute to place them in apartments and distribute donated goods.

“The ball was already dropped,” she said. “Missouri and the organization responsible for resettlements were not ready to resettle this many refugees, but our community was ready.”

Last week, nearly 150 Afghan refugees were still living in hotels, according to the International Institute. As of Thursday, CEO Arrey Obenson said only eight families are still living in hotels.

He defended the nonprofit’s work in settling the Afghan refugees into St. Louis.

“The International Institute has never before managed this kind of this volume of arrivals,” he said. “I say to people that it's like preparing for a hurricane. At one point, we were preparing for it and at this point, we are in it. And I'm treating this as almost an emergency.”

In the past, the International Institute handled refugee resettlements without partnering with area nonprofits that specialize in helping refugees. But it can’t operate by the same playbook anymore, nor does Obenson, as its new CEO, want it to.

“One organization cannot be there for 300 people all the time,” Obenson said.

Over the past decade, the International Institute has helped resettle nearly 700 Afghan refugees. This year alone, the institute hopes to resettle 550.

Obenson stressed that the International Institute has not broken any contractual obligations to the federal government as the lead agency for resettling refugees in the region. He said the organization even has the capacity to welcome more refugees, but only if he can form a coalition with area nonprofits, including House of Goods.

International Institute command center to assist Afghan refugees

“We're only going to be able to do more if we collaborate as a community, not as individual organizations,” Obenson said.

This week, the International Institute is launching a Refugee Command Center in partnership with Welcome Neighbor STL and Oasis International. The three organizations are signing a memorandum of understanding to improve communication and prevent duplicating efforts.

Obenson also said he is drafting a memorandum with the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis, which leads House of Goods.

Madeleine Grucza, Welcome Neighbor STL’s family support coordinator, said that she sees the outside organizations as key partners in the resettlement process. Welcome Neighbor aims to pair each new Afghan family with three or four St. Louis volunteers. The volunteers will assess the family’s needs and work quickly to connect them with donations.

The bigger piece, she said, is helping them acclimate to the city, and the country.

“I primarily look at [the International Institute] as caseworkers,” Grucza said. “They are responsible for the first 90 days to put the benefits in place for the families.”

In the immediate term, housing is the biggest challenge, with many new arrivals staying in hotels for weeks before the International Institute can find an apartment.

Obenson estimates refugee families will not have to stay in hotels for more than a month before finding permanent housing. And he stresses that the federal stipend International Institute receives for each refugee — $1,025 — will not be spent on hotel stays.

No matter where the refugees are placed, Grozdanic said House of Goods remains committed to helping them find their way in St. Louis.

She said the refugees feel comforted and reassured to find other Muslims in St. Louis. She described how a group of Afghans initially placed at the Hollywood Casino & Hotel in St. Charles were later moved by the International Institute to a more suitable hotel with kitchens, but they were nervous about being moved. Some didn’t want to go, she said.

“When they see the Muslim community showing up, and ensuring that everything was going to be OK, and we were going to walk and be there with them for every step of the way, even after they move out of these hotels, they feel a lot better,” she said.

Ways to help Afghan refugees:

  • The International Institute is no longer accepting furniture donations. Oasis International is the lead agency accepting and distributing furniture donations for refugees.
  • Welcome Neighbor wants more people to volunteer for family partnering to introduce refugees to American life.
  • House of Goods is accepting dry goods and winter clothing donation drop-offs at their warehouse located at 5911 Southwest Ave., St. Louis. 
  • If you are a landlord or property manager interested in partnering with the International Institute to provide refugees with housing, email Arrey Obenson: obensona@iistl.org

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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