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St. Louis’ Afghan refugees now have housing. Next up: classes, grants and careers

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, speaks to community members and the media in January.

When the first large group of Afghan refugees landed in St. Louis last summer, many found themselves struggling to fit into a new city, dealing with a new language and less-than-ideal living situations.

Now, seven months later, the International Institute of St. Louis has announced that it has settled all of the recent crop of 594 Afghan refugees in permanent housing, with no more individuals living in hotels. It’s a benchmark that the institute’s CEO, Arrey Obenson, sees as a cause for celebration.

“The team has worked incredibly hard,” Obenson said on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “We know, obviously, that it was challenging for them, for all of us, for this community, to have them living in hotels, especially the larger families. But when that last family of 10 got permanent housing, we celebrate it.”

The refugees came to the St. Louis region after Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul fell to the Taliban last August. It was the first time the institute had handled that volume of arrivals in its more than 100-year history.

Moji Sidiqi manages the Afghan Support Program for St. Louis' International Institute.
Danny Wicentowski
St. Louis Public Radio
Moji Sidiqi manages the Afghan Support Program for St. Louis' International Institute.

Although the International Institute has faced pressure to find housing, schools and resources for so many families, it hasn’t been working alone. Arch Grants founder Jerry Schlichter announced a new initiative in January designed to attract Afghan immigrants to the city. That includes developing a soccer league for Afghan kids, providing a housing fund and launching an Afghan chamber of commerce.

Additional help has come from local organizations like Welcome Neighbor STL, Oasis International and House of Goods, which are intimately involved with providing support to the many needs of refugees. In December, along with the International Institute, the groups came together to form a Refugee Command Center.

Moji Sidiqi, who manages the Afghan Support Program launched by Schlichter, told St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske that the groups’ combined efforts aim to give refugees both a sense of safety and community with other people connected to their culture.

“The bigger aim of the Institute is to help these people become self-sustaining,” Sidiqi explained. “As much as we love to offer these programs and services, we want to help them integrate and assimilate into the St. Louis community, so that they can get into the working scene, go into schools and get their own lives on the road.”

How St. Louis housed its Afghan refugees

Fulfilling housing needs isn’t the end of the institute’s work. Obenson shares the goal of making the city a destination for Afghan refugees.

“I think that we're on the path to that,” he said. “What we're doing in St. Louis is unprecedented, that we're going beyond just resettlement to actually creating an environment that is welcoming for these families. We know that immigrants typically go to where other immigrants are. And they would go to where those immigrants feel comfortable.”

Giving the new St. Louisans the tools to build their careers and lives will take additional resources. Sidiqi said the Afghan Support Program has distributed 200 iPads to the families and connected them with internet access. Also on the horizon are a coding class and grants for entrepreneurs hoping to start new businesses in their new home city.

“This is the St. Louis we're trying to create, to get people to recognize each other as humans and love each other,” she said. “And then, whatever blessings that you have, be willing to share it, because as these refugees and immigrants assimilate and integrate into this community, they too will give back.”

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 Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."
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