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When families fleeing war in Syria arrived in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2016, Dr. Sofia Khan saw a need. Her goal? Educate community members about the refugee process and help Kansas Citians welcome their new neighbors.
So she founded KC for Refugees.
At first, Khan said, most of the emails she received were from people concerned about how thoroughly refugees had been vetted and whether they would be taking jobs from U.S. citizens. Now, if she receives 250 emails, Khan said, 249 of them will be from people asking how they can help.
“It’s beautiful,” Khan said. “I think the groundwork we did over the past six years has made Kansas City one of the most welcoming cities in the whole country. I truly believe that.”
Refugee resettlement in Kansas City dropped sharply under former President Donald Trump.
But President Joe Biden pledged this week to admit 125,000 refugees to the U.S. over the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. That does not include thousands more Afghan citizens who have fled the country and are in the U.S. under a separate humanitarian program.
For years, Kansas City has been a destination for refugees and new immigrants, largely because of the work of three resettlement agencies: Jewish Vocational Service, Della Lamb Community Services and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
As the region prepares to receive significant numbers of refugees after several years of restricted admissions, Khan’s group and the other agencies are sharing ways for people to get involved.
Help with refugee housing, food and furniture
The most urgent need for incoming refugees is housing. Families need their own space for the sake of their dignity and personal boundaries, said Danilo Aguilar, director of refugee services at Della Lamb.
As rental prices continue to increase in Kansas City and fewer affordable houses and apartments become available, resettlement agencies are asking for help. Anyone who has property available for rent should contact Jewish Vocational Service, Della Lamb or Catholic Charities.
Once resettlement agencies have secured a place for an incoming refugee family to live, the next step is to furnish the apartment. Most refugees arrive with very few belongings. Agencies must provide furniture — including beds, dressers, tables and chairs — as well as clothing, toiletries, cleaning supplies, small appliances, school supplies and, of course, food.
There are three main ways that community members can help with this process.
- A cash donation to any of the three resettlement agencies or KC for Refugees will be used to purchase the most urgently needed items, as well as to pay rent and bills for refugee families.
- Agencies accept donations of gently used furniture and clothing and, in some cases, food. Khan encourages people to check the lists of suggested donations — available on agencies’ websites and at the bottom of this story — before they give. Some items, such as ping-pong tables or bean bag chairs, are not particularly useful and likely cannot fit in a family’s apartment, she said.
- Teams of volunteers can help resettlement agencies set up an apartment for the incoming family. They often need volunteers with pickup trucks to move furniture or an extra set of hands to carry things in.
Helping refugees with long-term needs
According to Aguilar, the recent decline in incoming refugees enabled agencies to expand the ways that they help refugee families long-term, without the added urgency of many new arrivals. Now that refugee intake is increasing again, Aguilar hopes the agencies can continue helping these families years after they arrive.
Long-term needs include tutoring for children, helping adults learn English and assisting with the process of becoming U.S. citizens.
Kasey Featherston, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities, said volunteers can help with English tutoring once a week, teach cultural orientation, provide transportation or take families shopping for food or clothing. At KC for Refugees, tutors can teach remotely, cutting down on the time commitment.
Khan encourages anyone interested in volunteering for KC for Refugees to contact her. She will ask for their interests and availability, and together they can decide how to best help.
How to get involved with Kansas City organizations helping refugees
- Jewish Vocational Service — 816-471-2808, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Della Lamb Community Services — 816-842-8040, email@example.com
- Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas — 913-433-2100, email form
- KC for Refugees — Facebook, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Email or check Facebook for volunteer opportunities or donation requests
What to avoid when helping refugee families
For people who have never volunteered before and are excited to help, Khan encouraged them to start slowly.
“I have seen many cases where people overcommit, and then they feel guilty that they abandoned the family,” she said. “It’s OK to say no at the time and say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ What I tell people is first, just get a feel for it.”
Advocates also urge volunteers and community members to never ask about the circumstances under which a refugee left their country. These memories are often loaded with trauma or terror. To ask about them can be triggering.
Aguilar said it’s important to let refugees open up on their own and decide what they want to share.
“In the United States, we’re in love with narrative…and so we want to hear people’s stories,” Aguilar said. “Talk to them, not with this hunger and thirst (for their story), but instead, to build a relationship, so that then you can learn their stories and connect on a deeper level, with their timing.”
Khan echoed the sentiment. She said she has very close friends whom she’s known for more than a decade, but she has never asked why or how they left their country.
“I’m telling you, I have been doing this for so long, and never have I ever asked (a refugee) their story,” she said.
Beyond this, advocates ask that volunteers simply be mindful of cultural differences and treat refugees with dignity. Some cultures have different norms with regards to hugging, eye contact, gender and age, and the nonprofit organizations supporting refugees often offer training that prepares volunteers to be as respectful as possible.
Getting to know refugee neighbors
As refugees move into homes throughout Kansas City, many of them feel nervous because they do not know any of their neighbors.
Khan recounted an instance when she brought a church group to a refugee family’s home with toys and to say hello. When they left, she asked the family if there was anything else they could do.
“He said, ‘Since we came here, we have no friends, we have not had any social contact, I’m so scared. I don’t even let the kids go outside to play, because I don’t know if this neighborhood is safe,’” Khan said. “He said, ‘For you to drive all the way here, just to say hi to me, and just to meet my family and my kids, that was the best thing you could have given me. I don’t want anything else.’”
For these families, to be isolated in an entirely new country can be terrifying. By simply meeting their neighbors, Khan said, their experience in Kansas City became so much easier, and they immediately felt safer.
Even if community members are nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing, Khan promised that those fears will disappear the moment they meet a refugee family.
“Everybody who has never done this before will be a little hesitant, but it’s so amazing,” she said. “As soon as you meet them…it’s like a cord came and connected (your) two hearts together. … They’re just beautiful people. They have some special blessing of God with them, and you feel that in their houses.”