St. Louis tries to boost the population with Afghan refugees

ST. LOUIS — Inamullah Niazai sits on the porch step of his red-brick St. Louis home and smiles at the hustle and bustle around him — his mother and father chat in the front yard, his two young daughters munch on chocolate ice cream.

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

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

Citizen leaders hope that over the next few years, thousands more will choose to relocate to the Midwest city to help offset seven decades of population loss and rejuvenate urban neighborhoods — just as the arrival of Bosnian refugees did three decades ago Has.

It has been almost nine months since the Afghan capital Kabul was ceded to the Taliban. More than 76,000 Afghan refugees have resettled in the United States since last summer. While California and Texas have taken in most displaced Afghans, many will eventually go elsewhere.


In the 1990s, St. Louis became America’s favorite landing spot for Bosnians displaced by the war in the former Yugoslavia. Of the estimated 300,000 who fled to the United States, about 40,000 call St. Louis and the region home today.

They revitalized an area south of the city that is now often referred to as Little Bosnia. The area has markets, cafes, auto repair shops and other Bosnian-owned shops. They have their own online newspaper, their own chamber of commerce.

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

Supported by over $1 million in donations and more than 800 volunteers, the St. Louis Afghan Resettlement Initiative is supported by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, the International Institute of St. Louis and other nonprofit groups. Proponents say they have received no opposition to their efforts.


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

The St. Louis effort also provided funds to start an online Afghan newspaper, chamber of commerce and community center.

“There is a mutual need. We stagnated,” said Schlichter. “We should seize this unique opportunity for Afghan refugees to end up somewhere in this country.”

Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis, said he’s confident the new refugees will revitalize neighborhoods just as Bosnians have done.

“The reality of the circumstances we’re facing is that when we look at the city of St. Louis and the declining population rate, we need to find a way to get people into the community to reverse that,” Obenson said .


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 1.85 million people lived there. Today the population has fallen by two-thirds to about 640,000.

Detroit business and community leaders launched the Detroit Refugee Network in April with hopes of raising more than $1 million to provide services such as housing, education, transportation and language classes. About 250 Afghan refugees have settled in Detroit and about 400 more elsewhere in southeast Michigan.

As in St. Louis, history in Detroit has proven the value immigrants can bring, 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 populated by immigrants from Bangladesh, Yemen, Mexico, and Central and South America. These two neighborhoods have grown by nearly 50% over the past two decades.


The result, according to the study, is less crime, well over 100 new businesses, and a reduction in home vacancy and tax forfeiture. The residents surveyed were happier and more optimistic than Detroit residents as a whole.

“Depopulation is what’s really putting these neighborhoods in pretty bad shape,” Tobocman said. “The vacancy, the lack of retail opportunities, the lack of jobs. Alone stabilization of the population, or in some cases regrowth of the population, can reverse this course.”

A major hurdle for Afghan refugees is finding accommodation. Thousands still live in hotels across the country.

But by early May, only two Afghan families remained at St. Louis hotels because the initiative has a program that guarantees landlords payments, Schlichter and Obenson said.

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


The initiative helped them find rental accommodation – a brick home on a quiet street a few miles south of the Gateway Arch, 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 will stay,” he said. “My future is good here.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. St. Louis tries to boost the population with Afghan refugees

Joel McCord

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