By JIM SALTER, Associated Press
ST. LOUIS (AP) — Inamullah Niazai sits on the porch step of his red brick home in St. Louis and smiles at the bustle of activity around him — his mother and father chatting in the front yard, his two young girls chewing a chocolate ice cream bars.
“Anything is possible here,” said 23-year-old Niazai. “We are so lucky that my family can be here together.”
An aggressive effort in St. Louis is trying to attract Afghan refugees like Niazai. Around 600 have arrived so far and another 750 are expected later this year.
Civic leaders hope that over the next few years, thousands more will decide to move to the Midwestern city, helping to offset seven decades of population loss and rejuvenate urban neighborhoods – much like the arrival of Bosnian refugees. did it three decades ago.
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It has been nearly nine months since the Afghan capital of Kabul was handed over to the Taliban. Since last summer, more than 76,000 Afghan refugees have moved to the United States. While California and Texas have received most of the displaced Afghans, many will eventually move elsewhere.
In the 1990s, St. Louis became the most popular American landing place for Bosnians displaced by war in the former Yugoslavia. Of the approximately 300,000 people who fled to the United States, some 40,000 now live in St. Louis and the region.
They revitalized an area on the south side of the city which is now often referred to as Little Bosnia. The area includes markets, cafes, car repair shops and other businesses owned by Bosnians. They have their own online journal, their own chamber of commerce.
Bosnians have also provided a much-needed demographic boost in a city that is losing residents at an alarming rate, from a peak of more than 850,000 in 1950 to just under 300,000 today.
The St. Louis Afghan Resettlement Initiative is supported by over $1 million in donations and more than 800 volunteers, and is supported by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, the International Institute of St. Louis and other nonprofit groups. Supporters say they received no opposition to their efforts.
Jerry Schlichter, a lawyer who is the organizer and one of the main funders, said the initiative helps find housing and jobs, connects newcomers to training such as courses in computer coding and gave grants to start-up companies.
The St. Louis effort also provided funds to establish an online Afghan newspaper, chamber of commerce and community center.
“There is a mutual need. We have stagnated,” Schlichter said. “With this unique opportunity with Afghan refugees ending up somewhere in this country, we should take advantage of it.”
Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis, said he is confident that the new refugees will revitalize neighborhoods, just as the Bosnians have done.
“The reality of the situation we face is that if we look at the city of St. Louis and the rate of population decline, we have to find a way to bring people into the community to reverse the trend,” Obenson said.
Saint-Louis is not 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 dropped by two-thirds, to around 640,000.
Detroit business and community leaders launched the Detroit Refugee Network in April, hoping to raise more than $1 million to provide services such as housing, education, transportation and language training . About 250 Afghan refugees have settled in Detroit, and about 400 others elsewhere in southeast Michigan.
Like St. Louis, Detroit’s history 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 filled with immigrants from Bangladesh, Yemen, Mexico, and Central and South America. Both of these neighborhoods have grown by nearly 50% over the past two decades or so.
The result is less crime, more than 100 new businesses and a reduction in vacant homes and tax foreclosures, according to the study. Residents surveyed were more satisfied and optimistic than Detroit residents as a whole.
“Depopulation is what’s really driving these neighborhoods into pretty dire circumstances,” Tobocman said. “The vacancy, the lack of retail opportunities, the lack of jobs. Simply stabilizing the population or, in a few cases, growing the population can reverse this trend.”
Housing is a major obstacle for Afghan refugees. Across the country, thousands of people still live in hotels.
But in early May, only two Afghan families were still in hotels in St. Louis because the initiative has a program guaranteeing payment to landlords, Schlichter and Obenson said.
Niazai, his wife and their two young daughters fled Kabul last year. They were first sent to Washington, DC, then to temporary accommodations in Texas. They chose to meet in Saint-Louis because other parents were already there.
The initiative helped them find a place to rent – a brick house on a quiet street a few miles south of Gateway Arch which is now home to 11 family members. The volunteers provided furniture, food and what Niazai called “welcome money”. Someone even gave him a car.
Niazai said he felt at home in St. Louis.
“We will stay,” he said. “My future is good here.”
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