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Nonprofit stands ready to assist, integrate refugees

This story originally appeared in the Jefferson City News Tribune. Read the full article online: News Tribune Website

Afghan refugees could begin arriving in Central Missouri this week.The nonprofit agency Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) has helped refugees from around the world integrate into Missouri for the past 40 years, Director Dan Lester said.

by Joe Gamm Aug. 28 2021 @ 11:55pmstory.lead_photo.caption Dan Lester, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, talks about the charity’s ability to help refugees settle in the Mid-Missouri area. The organization has been gearing up for the expected influx of refugees. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Afghan refugees could begin arriving in Central Missouri this week.

The nonprofit agency Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) has helped refugees from around the world integrate into Missouri for the past 40 years, Director Dan Lester said.

Many of the 4,000 refugees the organization placed have found homes in the Columbia area. CCCNMO has placed them in other communities as well, such as Sedalia.

There is potential to find homes for refugees anywhere in CCCNMO’s 38-county area — which is the same as that of the Diocese of Jefferson City.

The area is bordered on the north by Putnam, Schulyer, Scotland and Clark counties along the Iowa state line and on the south by Hickory, Camden, Pulaski, Phelps and Crawford counties.

The housing crunch, especially in Columbia, will affect where refugees may end up, Lester said.

He added that Jefferson City offers potential with its employment opportunities and great schools.

Jefferson City isn’t really that far down the road from Columbia, where the nonprofit’s Refugee Services Team is based.

“With the new (CCCNMO) building coming online, there’s a possibility there that we could see some more folks,” Lester said.

The U.S. government is currently housing refugees in three military bases, Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Lee in Virginia. The temporary accommodations will see about 25,000 refugees, officials have said.

Timelines are difficult to guess right now, Lester said.

“Given the amount of folks who are waiting to get out of these bases, where they are currently being housed, and those still getting on planes and coming over, we think it’s going to be a three- to six-month crunch of lots and lots of really active resettlement all across the United States,” he said.

That’s a challenge the federal government is still gearing up for.

Immigration of refugees involves federal agencies across the board, Lester said.

In the United States, the president — in consultation with the U.S. State Department and other advisers — sets the national ceiling for how many refugees the country will welcome.

Under the President Barack Obama administration, that ceiling was about 85,000 refugees per year (for the year ending Sept. 30). Over the past four years, there was a steady decline to about 12,500 refugees per year.

“That number dropped precipitously for the total number of refugees that were going to be welcomed into the United States,” Lester said. “What that led to, and unfortunately what that’s feeding now, is at the federal level the amount of staff who were available to do all of the processing — the background checks, the medical checks, everything you need to do to make sure the folks you welcome are safe and are going to be good fits to come here — those staff got slashed.”

Staffing reductions trickled down to agencies like Catholic Charities across the United States who saw fewer and fewer refugees. A lot of local agencies who did refugee resettlement had to shutter their programs.

There are about 30 percent fewer agencies across the country to welcome refugees.

“That has created a backlog, where as we’ve looked to welcome more refugees from all around the world — and now with this situation in Afghanistan — the capacity isn’t what it was five years ago to do that,” Lester said. “That’s going to be a big factor in who ends up going where and how many we can welcome in general.”

From the national level down, the capacity is being rebuilt, he said. The current administration hoped to receive about 60,000 refugees by the end of September, and intends to continue raising the ceiling.

“Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri has weathered those years — of when there were fewer refugees nationally,” Lester said. “We are ready for some of these Afghan evacuees, refugees. We’ve been building our staff back up in anticipation of seeing more refugees from other locations as well.”

The nonprofit’s Refugees Services Team is made up of 15 people.

It incorporates case managers, who work day to day with folks when they arrive, helping them navigate their new home. The team includes an employment specialist, who works directly with local employers to make sure staff can find good, stable employment for the community’s new arrivals.

The team includes an English language trainer to help with those skills. Staff on the team coordinates enrollment for school-age children. One team member is dedicated to assuring refugees’ health needs are met.

The team is based in the nonprofit’s Columbia office.

The driving goals are always integration and self-sufficiency, Lester said.

“Columbia, as our largest sort of metro area, has been the place where it’s easiest to do the bulk of this work,” Lester said.

“It’s going to expand. It’s going to grow, and there are going to be new populations coming into different areas for sure.”

Over the past couple of weeks, CCCNMO staff have been focused on Afghanistan. However, other refugees continue to arrive.

A couple of days ago, the team received an email from its alert system. The notification said to prepare for the arrival of two Congolese individuals and a family of five — who will all be in Mid-Missouri in the next few weeks.

It was a reminder that others will continue to arrive — from places like Myanmar and other locations in Southeast Asia, Lester said.

“We feel really confident. We’ve had a lot of great (local) support already — with folks calling, emailing, asking how they can get involved; how they can help,” he said.

They offer to open their homes. Or church groups offer their help. They offer furniture. They ask what kinds of donations are needed and where to send them.

“That has given us a great lift. The community really wants to help and is concerned about this,” Lester said.

The nonprofit quickly transformed its website to let people know how to get involved.

The site lists volunteer opportunities and asks what services potential volunteers might be able to offer — such as giving rides, providing housing, supplying furniture or household goods, preparing meals, receiving arrivals at airports, assisting with case management and many other efforts. If all you have is a strong back, you may want to assist with moving furniture and setting up homes.

Maybe, you have a pickup, truck or van you could loan to CCCNMO.

The nonprofit can find ways to use your gifts.

Given CCCNMO’s staffing levels, the training it has done, the experience staff members have gained more than 40 years of doing this work, they know how to make things happen, Lester said. Even if the notice that it gets is short, the team knows who to call to get that apartment set up or to make sure the refrigerator is stocked or to get the children enrolled in school or to get those medical checks done.

“We’ve been doing this for a long long time, and we’re good at it. We wouldn’t still be doing it if we weren’t good at it,” he said. “So, I’m incredibly confident that we’re going to be ready to welcome as many folks as they want to send our way.”