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The Challenge, Opportunity, and Coordination of relocating Afghan refugees to Joplin, MO

Fred Fletcher-Fierro
Joplin Interfaith Coalition meeting at United Hebrew Congregation

70 additional refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and the Congo are expected to arrive in Joplin later this year

More than 75,000 Afghan refugees have been resettled throughout the US under the Biden Administrations Operation Welcome Allies. But like the US withdrawal from the country, not everything has gone according to plan.

April 14, 2021, President Biden announced that the US's 20-year war in Afghanistan would end with the withdrawal of troops by mid-September. After 7,990 days the war in Afghanistan was over.

By the end of the year, about 50 Afghan refugees arrived in Joplin, Missouri after numerous stops at US air bases for security checks and health screenings. Currently there are 108 refugees residing in Joplin, in addition to those living in neighboring communities Carl Junction and Webb City.

A safety net of religious non-profits and refugee resettlement agencies in Joplin that struggled initially to meet demand are still working out the kinks for future refugees.

John Anderson is the co-pastor at Joplin's First Presbyterian Church; he helped settle one of the families to arrive.

"Being involved with the Afghan refugee community was something that I personally would have been involved in whether or not my church had decided to back the effort. When I brought it to our community, it was just the opportunity to get engaged that I was looking for."

John is a member of the Joplin Interfaith Coalition, an initiative to promote cooperation and understanding between the different religious faiths.

One of the challenges that religious non-profits and refugee relocation agencies face is the 24-36 hour window provided by the government, leaving them scrambling to find housing and other resources prior to the refugees arrival.

"We had nine members here. I didn't actually get to mention talking about relatives and things that are left behind. We technically had a ten-member family. The oldest daughter was married, and so she stayed behind with her husband, who was not able to leave.”

According to the 2020 census, Missouri grew by .2%, making it difficult for businesses to hire enough people. Sallie Beard also works with the Joplin Interfaith Coalition. Beard thinks this is an opportune time for the refugees to work and gain experience in their new country.

"I think the opportunity that we have welcoming some of these refugees and or immigrants is that we're having a hard time with our workforce. And these people are not afraid to work at all. It may take a little bit of work on our part to get them workforce ready."

Beard also remembers another US conflict and the resulting refugee crisis that saw 120,000 Vietnamese relocate to the US in 1975. One hundred seventy-five of those individuals were Roman Catholic priests and brothers who made their home in Carthage, Missouri. Three years later they helped start Marian Days which will celebrate its 45th anniversary this August with an average attendance for the four-day festival of 80,000 visitors.

"Just look at the Vietnamese experience that we have. We welcomed a lot of Vietnamese refugees into our community and looked at where they are today and the contribution that they make to our economy. So, I see this happening with this influx of refugees."

Paul Teverow is a member of the United Hebrew Congregation and a leading member of the Joplin Interfaith Coalition. He spent a career in academia, but says he's never been a part of an endeavor like this that requires such close coordination.

"I can't think of anything that would require this much organization and coordination. So many people reaching out to other people; again, I work with students one-on-one. I stand in admiration of those who can organize an effort on this scale."

As many as 70 additional refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, and the Congo to arrive in Joplin later this year. Paul thinks the groups are better prepared and has this advice for non-profits and community members who want to get involve

"It just takes a group of people, first of all, who are willing, even though they may have their own deeply held religious beliefs torn about those of others. And the second thing is it takes people who really truly believe that people of different faiths nevertheless have a common interest in working together to make their community a better place."

The volunteer-based Joplin Interfaith Coalition is a part of what makes the community great—giving their time, energy, and commitment to looking out for the neighbors and new residents of Joplin who have never visited prior. Nothing is perfect, but the coalition and their dedication show the possibility of a better Joplin daily.

Since 2017 Fred Fletcher-Fierro has driven up Highway 171 through thunderstorms, downpours, snow, and ice storms to host KRPS’s Morning Edition. He’s also a daily reporter for the station, covering city government, elections, public safety, arts, entertainment, culture, sports and more. Fred has also spearheaded and overseen a sea change in programming for KRPS from a legacy classical station to one that airs a balance of classical, news, jazz, and cultural programming that better reflects the diverse audience of the Four States. For over two months in the fall of 2022 he worked remotely with NPR staff to relaunch to an NPR style news and information website.
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