The Fulton Rotary Club’s communal sponsorship of a resettling family from Afghanistan is uniting people of all ages, creeds and political stripes behind an essential cause.
“Yes, we’ll give them a lot, we’ll provide a lot,” noted Dr. Robert Hansen PhD, one of the leaders of the Fulton Rotary Club’s refugee resettlement project. “But they’ve already given us so much, and they haven’t even arrived yet!”
Fulton Rotary has been working with Refugee Services of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) to welcome a family of 13 to Fulton this month.
These 13 are among about 300 people fleeing Afghanistan, many of whom eligible for special immigrant visas, who will be resettled in Central Missouri following the collapse of the Afghan government this summer.
Many of those fleeing from Afghanistan currently qualify for special immigrant visa status in the United States, based on the danger they would likely suffer for having worked for or with the U.S. during the Afghan War (2001-21).
Several U.S. federal agencies screened and vetted the people who are being admitted to this country.
They technically are not classified as refugees but are eligible for the same services refugees receive from the U.S. government.
“They’re here because they have a well-founded fear of severe persecution of them or their families in their home country,” stated Samantha Moog, director of Refugee Services at CCCNMO.
They are being resettled through the nation’s nine major refugee resettlement agencies, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), with which CCCNMO Refugee Services is affiliated.
“This is really a historic moment,” Ms. Moog told about 40 people at a Nov. 5 town-hall meeting on Afghan resettlement, in the Sacred Heart Activity Building in Columbia.
“Right now in our country and throughout the world, in terms of refugee resettlement, this particular situation is really moving communities to take action,” she said.
CCCNMO is the only agency that works with the U.S. government to settle refugees in Central Missouri.
The sudden surge in refugees and special immigrant visa holders has put a heavy strain on Catholic Charities Refugee Services’ resources.
“People have been arriving almost every day,” said Ms. Moog. “It is an extraordinary effort that we’re making and we’re rising to the call to get these people into a safe place where they can start rebuilding their lives.”
The needs are tremendous.
Despite taking on additional staff, “we’re not built to do this kind of refugee response,” Ms. Moog noted. “That’s why we’re calling on local communities for assistance.”
Community sponsorships enhance Catholic Charities Refugee Services’ ability to resettle people, and it builds community support for its work.
“That’s where community sponsorship is really critical,” she said. “In order to resettle all of these people, we need churches, organizations, groups and individuals in the community to work with us.”
Service above self
“This is simply the right thing to do,” Bishop W. Shawn McKnight said. “Our Lord spent the first years of His life as a refugee in Egypt. He has shown us what Scripture means: ‘You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.’”
The Fulton Rotary Club is an affiliate of Rotary International. The nondenominational civic organization’s motto is “Service Above Self.”
Discussion about helping resettling people from Afghanistan began in August, before the fall of Kabul.
“We became serious in terms of accelerating what we’re doing following the takeover (of the Afghan government) by the Taliban,” said Dr. Hansen, a member of First Presbyterian Church in Fulton.
A family of St. Peter parishioners in Fulton is already helping an Afghan refugee family in the area, with tangible and practical assistance from fellow parishioners.
“And now we (the Rotary Club) are waiting for our first family,” sometime in the first half of November, said Dr. Hansen.
“We hope that they stay settled in Fulton!” he stated. “We will help them get their start and their feet underneath them, and they are free to go anywhere anytime. But we hope they stay.”
Fulton Rotary has been working with Fulton’s city government, local churches, civic groups and institutions to prepare for the family’s arrival.
The response has been tremendous.
“What we found in Fulton is that it crosses all kinds of political, religious and every other kind of line possible,” said Dr. Hansen. “People are supporting them no matter what.”
Members formed 11 groups to handle various aspects of the family’s integration into the community, including education, transportation, healthcare, housing and employment.
“Each of the teams has a task,” said Dr. Hansen. “It’s so much easier if you divide up the tasks than to have a few people trying to do everything.”
Several Fulton Rotarians observed that most refugee resettlement in this country takes place in larger communities, which often have larger immigrant populations and access to more services.
“But we asked ourselves, ‘Why not a small town?’” said Dr. Hansen. “We’ve already had some refugee families live here and excel. You don’t need to have a big city to make it work.”
He noted that a past Westminster College president, a retired U.S. Army general, helped his Afghan interpreter resettle in Fulton 13 years ago.
“That family stayed and became successful in so many ways,” said Dr. Hansen. “His daughter was valedictorian at Fulton High School. Academically, they have all adapted and excelled.”
Likewise, several refugees from Rwanda have settled in Fulton “and have done exceptionally well here,” he said.
The key for a task of this magnitude is for everyone to get involved, especially in a city with a population of 12,800.
“We have people from all — ALL! — areas of our community, which is a really neat thing,” Dr. Hansen noted. “We quickly went from six to nine to 12 to 30 and now 45 volunteers. People are wanting to help. All you have to do is ask.”
He noted that Westminster College, “from the president on down,” has been a solid supporter of the Rotary’s preparations for incoming refugees.
Westminster College Fraternity Delta Tau Delta owns a large home in the city and will allow the Afghan family to live there rent-free for a period of time.
The college is providing financial support and in-kind services, including home furnishings and information technology assistance.
“We’re also working to get two of our own (Westminster) graduates out of Afghanistan right now,” said Dr. Hansen.
One is still in Afghanistan, another has fled with her family to neighboring Tajikistan.
Frishta Aslami, CCCNMO’s Afghan program coordinator, is a Westminster graduate from Afghanistan and knows both of the women the college is trying to help.
Dr. Hansen said he hopes that 15 years from now, the people from Afghanistan who resettle in Fulton will be able to say that “this community has open arms, they invited us in and tried their very best to provide everything we needed, and we’ve made great relationships and we think we want to settle here long-term. And we hope that our kids will also settle here.”
Meanwhile, the cause has created solid relationships in the community among people who might never have gotten to know each other.
Catholic and Protestant Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists are putting their shared values into action.
“There are so many people from different faiths who are part of this group,” said Dr. Hansen. “I think all of them are responding to a sense of commitment, many of them out of their spiritual foundation and conviction.
“It’s one of those interfaith kind of things that can bring a community together,” he stated. “In that way, we benefit as much as the refugee families who are coming.”
“Life and death”
“We are going to get 300 new neighbors,” Martha Means, Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement AmeriCorps VISTA, proclaimed during the Nov. 5 gathering in Columbia.
“We want our community to be ready and welcoming and show them the hospitality and love that we have here in Central Missouri,” she stated.
She said community sponsorships are a great way for congregations, civic groups and other local organizations to help with refugee resettlement.
A group needs to have at least 10 dedicated volunteers to carry out the necessary work of resettlement.
“It’s a lot of work resettling people from different countries here in mid-America,” she said.
Many evacuees from Afghanistan came here with few belongings and have been staying in temporary quarters on U.S. military bases.
“They have great need,” Ms. Means said. “We are really asking the community of central Missouri to step up and assist our organization in the resettlement of our new neighbors.”
Ms. Moog said CCCNMO has a committed staff representing nations throughout the world.
She noted that about one (1) percent of refugees who leave their homeland out of fear of persecution or death get the opportunity to be resettled in another country.
“So the refuges we resettle here are a very, very small minority of the refugees around the world,” she said.
She referred to the United States’ operation to resettle the 100,000 who were airlifted out of Afghanistan “an emergency humanitarian program.”
“It is a matter of life and death for some people,” she said. “And we are seeing an unprecedented migration of people in this short period of time.”
She noted that 40 percent of the Afghan evacuees currently living on military bases are children, and that there are also thousands of pregnant women.
“The military bases were not built to accommodate so many people, so the conditions are not ideal,” she said.
Ms. Moog said community sponsorships last for six months, which is usually enough for refugee families to become self-sufficient.
“I think with community sponsorship assistance, it will be even quicker,” she said.
A Catholic Charities Refugee Services case manager works with the sponsoring group to determine what resources and assistance each refugee needs.
Community sponsors have 24-hour access to a telephone interpretation line that recognizes 240 languages.
CCCNMO Refugee Services Community Engagement Coordinator Valérie Berta noted that the agency has resettled about 4,000 refugees from many nations since 1975.
“By the end of this effort we’re facing now, we will have resettled many, many more,” she said. “We need community support. We need help doing this work and facing this situation.”
“This work,” she noted, consists of helping families start a new life in a new country after leaving their home with little more than the clothes on their back.
“They need a lot of assistance to rebuild their lives,” said Ms. Berta. “So we offer temporary financial assistance to help with food, housing, supplies — basically anything you need to rebuild your life.”
CCCNMO provides trained case managers to help each family with the paperwork that goes with all the services the family requires.
Catholic Charities Refugee Services also provides employment services and help for people learning English as a new language.
Ms. Berta said the goal for every family is self-sufficiency.
“They need to be able to provide for themselves,” she said.
One of the most important things volunteers can do for their new neighbors is help acclimate them to the culture.
“Take them to a park, help them with the grocery shopping and develop a relationship that will help immensely in that cultural integration and that sense of belonging,” she said.
“In this together”
Monsignor Gregory Higley, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Columbia, invited CCCNMO Refugee Services to hold the Nov. 5 gathering at Sacred Heart.
“I hope we’re successful with all of this,” he said. “I hope we can do what Fulton is doing, here in Columbia, not just with churches but also with groups and organizations.”
“We have lots of resources available here, particularly volunteers,” he noted.
Dr. Hansen pointed out that almost everybody in this country has ancestors who were immigrants or refugees.
“They resettled here,” he said. “We stand on their shoulders and we want these people to be able to get their shot and a fair chance.”
On behalf of the Fulton Rotary Club, he asked for prayers for the people being resettled, “and then to look around in your own life and see if you can help, whether big or small.”
“And recognize that we’re all in this together, that we all need to make a commitment to these families,” he said.
For additional assistance with resettlement efforts, the public is encouraged to donate by texting “WelcomeMO” to 91999, giving online at cccnmo.diojeffcity.org/give, or mailing a check payable to CCCNMO to PO Box 104626 Jefferson City, MO 65110-4626.
Community groups are encouraged to become a Community Sponsor; learn more at: