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Record number of Afghan refugees settle in Columbia

Record number of Afghan refugees settle in Columbia

COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)

A record number of Afghan refugees have found a place to call home in Columbia over the last two months.

Since Sept. 26, Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri has welcomed 207 new Afghan refugees, including four new babies. For context, the highest number of arrivals CCCNMO ever welcomed over 12 months was 229.

"We've never experienced anything quite like this as far as the sheer number of folks coming in at once and so it's kept all of us very, very busy and I'm so grateful on Thanksgiving to have the wonderful staff that I have who've been doing this work," said Dan Lester, the executive director with CCCNMO.

CCCNMO is a Local Resettlement Agency tasked with helping welcome every refugee that arrives. For 46 years, it's served as the only LRA in mid-Missouri.

"This has been an unprecedented and hopefully, once in a career type of event as far as having this many people arriving in this short of time and having to provide all those services that we provide, finding that initial housing, having that culturally appropriate food, getting people connected to the health care system, starting to work with employers, just taking care of all of those things," Lester said.

CCCNMO provides many different programs to help refugees integrate into Columbia society, including English learning and employment services.

Lester says each refugee coming to mid-Missouri has a different background and understanding of American ideals.

"Some of the folks who are arriving, for example, from Afghanistan, many of them were professionals back home, they were aiding our military, they were aiding our government, they were doctors. So many of them have high levels of education, a lot of them speak very, very good English," Lester said. "So for them, you know, this whole transition process looks very different from some folks who might be on the other end of the spectrum who may have come from very rural areas, you know, and were in agriculture or had other backgrounds and maybe they don't speak any English at all."

During holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, while most Americans celebrate, many refugees have never celebrated these holidays and are still adapting to the prominent United States' culture.

However, Lester says the welcoming program isn't a free-for-all and CCCNMO follows federal guidelines when bringing refugees from all different countries to the U.S.

"No one is advocating for open borders, no, absolutely not," Lester said. "We need to have safe, secure borders, but we also have a duty and a responsibility to care for those people who need support and who need help."

Under U.S. law, a "refugee" is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of a "well-founded fear of persecution" due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.

Lester says for him, it's lifesaving work.

"Refugees are not folks who are just leaving their home because they're looking for a better economic situation somewhere else, refugees are people that flee from their homes because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution," Lester said. "When we talk about persecution, really what we're talking about is they're facing death if they were to stay in their homes, their lives are at risk their family's lives are at risk in the case of so many of these Afghan refugees."

In many cases, like we saw this year in Afghanistan when the United States pulled troops out of the region, many aids and translators for the U.S. government were trying to leave the middle-east.

"It's because they had a tie to us here, you know, through our government through our military," Lester said. "We know that if they weren't here with us in mid-Missouri in this community, their lives are at risk and so that I mean just from the perspective of being able to know that you've made a difference and that you've played some tiny part in helping to save someone's life."

Lester says CCCNMO has to make sure when the new arrivals land at the Columbia Regional Airport, the organization provides what they need to meet the refugees' basic and critical needs.

"We want to make sure everybody's got plenty of food, they've got plenty of items on hand that they need for our families that have little ones, we've got wet wipes and diapers and everything else," Lester said. "So just making sure that they have what they actually need so that they can be as self-sufficient as possible."

If you'd like to volunteer, donate or participate, you can call (573) 635-7719 or contact Valérie Berta, Community Engagement Coordinator, at vberta@cccnmo.org or (573) 540-1264.

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Zach Boetto

Zach Boetto anchors the weekend morning and weekday 9 a.m. & noon newscasts for ABC 17. You can find up-to-the-minute information on Zach’s social media, @ABC17Zach on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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