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St. Louis sets out to attract more Afghan refugees with a familiar strategy

Working off the same blueprint that built St. Louis' Bosnian community to the largest in the country, stakeholders say their initiative will bolster the region.

ST. LOUIS — St. Louis has the largest Bosnian population in the United States. Now leaders want to do the same thing with Afghan refugees.

"Anyone from any corner of the earth can come to America and become an American," Mojda Sidiqi said, referencing a photo of herself at nine years old.

Born in Kabul, Sidiqi outlined her own experience immigrating from Afghanistan, as stakeholders — led by Arch Grants founder Jerry Schlichter — unveiled a new plan to market St. Louis to current Afghan refugees and the federal government in charge of placing them in new hometowns. 

"These are unprecedented times, and what we have achieved is unprecedented. And, yet, there is a lot more to be done," International Institute of St. Louis(IISTL) leader Arrey Obensen said.

Obensen said the International Institute welcomed 574 Afghans last year, almost as many people as the full decade before when 626 resettled through the IISTL. 

But thousands more are still living in US military bases with a deadline to leave by the end February. Stakeholders say building a strong community will give St. Louis an edge as people decide where to live.

"We have been losing ground to other cities because our population as a region has been stagnant," Todd Schnuck, CEO of Schnucks Markets, said.  We have an opportunity to reverse this trend but we have to act now or we will fall behind other cities in population and opportunity."

Strong initial resettlement efforts for refugees fleeing the Bosnian War in the 1990s led to a second wave of migration and made St. Louis home to the largest Bosnian population in the country, about 70,000 people. Leaders want to repeat some of the same strategies for the new wave of refugees.

In a press release, organizers outlined the following priorities for their Afghan Resettlement Initiative: establishing an Afghan Chamber of Commerce, Afghan Community Center, and Afghan newspaper; giving iPads to 200 Afghan families; finding tuition and translators for ten people to attend coding classes at Claim Academy; and free use of the indoor soccer minifields at FutbolClub STL.

But the biggest issue still remains housing.

With about a hundred people still living in area hotels, a housing fund would bridge the gap between the few months of federal funding refuges get and a 12-month lease preferred by most landlords.

"We believed in the American dream and over and over we have made it come true for ourselves and now for others," Sidiqi said.

The initiative is fully funded and is being implemented now.