St. Louis tries to increase population with Afghan refugees

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Inamullah Niazai sits on the steps of his red brick home in St. Louis and smiles at the activity around him — his mom and dad chatting in the front yard, his two young daughters munching on chocolate ice cream bars.

“Anything is possible here,” said Niazai, 23. “We are so lucky that my family can be here together.”

An aggressive effort in St. Louis tries to lure Afghan refugees like Niazai. About 600 have arrived so far and another 750 are expected later this year.

Citizen leaders are hopeful that in the coming years, thousands more will decide to move to the Midwestern city, to compensate for seven decades of population loss and to rejuvenate urban neighborhoods — just as the arrival of Bosnian refugees did three decades ago.

It has been nearly nine months since the Afghan capital, Kabul, was ceded to the Taliban. More than 76,000 Afghan refugees have moved to the US since last summer. While California and Texas have sheltered most of the displaced Afghans, many will eventually go elsewhere.

In the 1990s, St. Louis became America’s most popular landing place for Bosniaks displaced by war in the former Yugoslavia. Of the estimated 300,000 who fled to the US, some 40,000 now call St. Louis and the region home.

They revived a part of the south side of the city that is now often referred to as Little Bosnia. The area features Bosnian markets, coffee shops, auto repair shops and other businesses. They have their own online newspaper, their own chamber of commerce.

The Bosniaks also provided much-needed population growth in a city that is losing people at an alarming rate, from a peak of over 850,000 in 1950 to just under 300,000 today.

The St. Louis Afghan Resettlement Initiative is supported by more than $1 million in donations and more than 800 volunteers, and it is supported by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, the International Institute of St. Louis, and other nonprofit organizations. Proponents say they have encountered no resistance to their efforts.

Jerry Schlichter, a lawyer who is the organizer and a major funder, said the initiative helps find housing and jobs, connects newcomers with training such as computer coding classes, and provides grants to start-ups.

The St. Louis effort also raised funds to establish an online Afghan newspaper, a chamber of commerce and a community center.

“There is a mutual need. We have stagnated,” said Schlichter. “With this one-time opportunity of Afghan refugees ending up somewhere in this country, we need to take advantage of it.”

Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis, said he is confident the new refugees will breathe new life into neighborhoods, just like the Bosniaks.

“The reality of the circumstance we are facing is that if we look at the city of St. Louis and the rate at which its population is declining, we need to find a way to bring people into the community to turn that around,” said obenson.

St. Louis isn’t the only city with a declining population trying to attract Afghan refugees.

Detroit also reached its population peak in 1950, when it was home to 1.85 million people. Today, the population has fallen by two-thirds to about 640,000.

Detroit business and community leaders launched the Detroit Refugee Network in April, hoping to raise more than $1 million for services such as housing, education, transportation and language training. About 250 Afghan refugees have settled in Detroit and another 400 elsewhere in southeastern Michigan.

Like St. Louis, history in Detroit has proven the value immigrants can have, said Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit.

Tobocman and Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, studied two Detroit neighborhoods teeming with immigrants from Bangladesh, Yemen, Mexico and Central and South America. Those two neighborhoods have grown nearly 50% over the past two decades.

The result is less crime, more than 100 new businesses and reductions in home vacancy and tax foreclosures, the study finds. The residents surveyed were more satisfied and optimistic than the residents of Detroit as a whole.

“Depopulation is what really puts these neighborhoods in some pretty tough conditions,” Tobocman said. “The vacancy, the lack of shopping opportunities, the lack of jobs. Just stabilizing the population or in a few cases regrowth of the population can reverse that course.”

A major hurdle for Afghan refugees is housing. Thousands of people still live in hotels across the country.

But by early May, only two Afghan families were left in St. Louis hotels because the initiative has a program that guarantees payment to landlords, Schlichter and Obenson said.

Niazai, his wife and their two young daughters fled Kabul last year. They were sent first to Washington, DC and then to temporary housing in Texas. They chose to end up in St. Louis because other relatives were already there.

The initiative helped them find a rental home – a brick house on a quiet street a few miles south of the Gateway Arch, which is now home to 11 family members. Volunteers provided furniture, food and what Niazai called “welcome money.” Someone even gave him a car.

Niazai said he feels at home in St. Louis.

“We’re staying,” he said. “My future is good here.”

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