ST. LOUIS – The International Institute of St. Louis is now anticipating 1,400 refugees from Afghanistan will make St. Louis their new home.
They’ve received an outpouring of donations and announced they are pausing in-kind donations until staff can take inventory and figure out what needs haven’t been met. The institute is still accepting cash and grocery gift card donations in the meantime.
Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis said they are expecting a wave of refugees in the next week. As they arrive, they will be given items to start their new lives in St. Louis. The institute has been the center of accepting and housing donations.
“We are surrounded by donations that have come from the community, we have been inundated by the generosity of this community and it can only be displayed by everything that you see around us,” Obenson said.
“If we are looking for a heartwarming story, this is a heartwarming story, everything that you see around here tells a story of people that … see a humanitarian crisis and want to help.”
Obenson said when they first asked for donations, they anticipated filling a storage room that is about a quarter of the size of the institute’s gym.
“We didn’t envision it would fill this gym, overflow into the corridors and demand an extra warehouse,” he added.
The institute is using three storage facilities outside of the gym, another warehouse and it’s still not enough room to house the generosity of St. Louis.
“People went to buy new dishes, everything you see here, mostly new stuff, people shopped for these families, it’s incredible,” Obenson said.
“We knew that there would be support but we had no idea, no idea that it would be this magnitude.”
Along with an influx of donations, they’ve also received an influx of volunteer applications. Paul Costigan, Missouri State Refugee Coordinator said volunteer applications at the institute have increased by several hundred percent, but they still need more.
“When refugees and the parolees first arrive, there’s a list of things that we have to do for them including health screenings, bus orientations, and grocery orientation, all of those activities involve volunteers,” he said.
Costigan said this isn’t the first time he’s seen St. Louis welcome refugees firsthand.
“In 1999, we had an influx of Kosovars that were being evacuated out of Kosovo during the Balkan War and one summer we had hundreds of Kosovo families come into St. Louis and the outpouring of support then was incredible,” Costigan said.
“When this outpouring of support from all of the donations, all the volunteers, all the companies asking to help was not a surprise for me because I’ve seen it before.”
Volunteer applications are up by several hundred percent. “You might not think you have a skill that would be useful, but you really do,” Costigan said.
He said while parents are in job readiness or English language learning classes, they also need volunteers to watch their children.
“People in St. Louis are generous to a fault and we just really appreciate the outpouring of support and hope that we can make them proud by having families that find homes, find long-term homes in St. Louis that end up staying here, opening business and end up contributing to our community,” he said.