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With Afghans On The Way, Kansas City’s Refugee Agencies Are Depleted By Years Of Budget Cuts

Richard Casebolt, the founder of Refuge KC, points out one of the many translations of "welcome" on a sign near his office in northeast Kansas City. The agency assists already resettled immigrants  with a variety of services with the aim of making them welcome in their new surroundings.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Richard Casebolt, the founder of Refuge KC, points out one of the many translations of "welcome" on a sign near his office in northeast Kansas City. The agency assists already resettled immigrants with a variety of services with the aim of making them welcome in their new surroundings.

Some resettlement organizations are only getting only 48 hours notice to find housing and work for Afghan refugees.

Groups in Kansas City and across the Midwest are working nonstop to help resettle Afghan refugees into the United States.

But many of these groups are hindered by cuts made years ago by the Trump administration, when it slashed the number of immigrants allowed into this country.

The work of resettling Afghans in the Kansas City area mostly falls on the shoulders of nonprofit, faith-based organizations designated by the State Department — 200 such groups are scattered across the U.S., and most face an urgency not felt in many years.

“We are seeing that agencies are receiving notices and resettling people within 48 hours," says Ryan Hudnall, the executive director of Della Lamb Community Center. “So that puts a whole new level of pressure on the local affiliate.”

Hudnall says not since 1975, with the airlift out of South Vietnam, has the U.S. seen the potentially large numbers of refugee resettlement it may face now.

“There’s going to be a gap of servicing and care,” Hudnall says. “So, it’ll be on the local community to navigate these issues and determine how to best respond to all the different issues that are going to emerge.”

Three agencies in the Kansas City metro are designated by the State Department to receive refugees: Jewish Vocational Services, Catholic Charities and Della Lamb Community Center.

JVS Executive Director Hilary Singer told KCUR’s Up to Date that the Kansas City area could possibly accept hundreds of refugees, but the total is still unknown. Most agency directors say the situation continues to rapidly evolve, even as refugees continue arriving.

The deadline for the United States’ withdrawal and airlift of recipients of special immigrant visas and others who may qualify for refugee status remains scheduled for the end of August.

Rapid ramp-up after years of cuts

Refugees who do settle in the U.S. receive a stipend of $1,100 per person for three months. And they have to pay back the travel cost to the U.S. government, so they must find work or other means of sustainability quickly.

Hudnall says the urgency of his agency’s situation is complicated by a housing shortage and several years of low immigration numbers.

“The past four years have not done us well to set us up for this situation,” he says. “Given that the international infrastructure, as well as COVID-19, you have to add that complexity on top of it.”

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Ryan Hudnall, executive director of Della Lamb Community Center, talks about some of the challenges of resettling Afghan refugees, some who may move into the Historic Northeast neighborhoods around Independence Avenue.

The Trump administration significantly cut the number of immigrants allowed into the country. That created a funding shortfall for agencies that handle refugees, leading them to cut their staff and limiting their ability to prepare for just such an event.

Joanna Krause runs Canopy of Northwest Arkansas. It's another faith-based organization and the sole agency in her state currently handling refugees.

“Over the last four years, the U.S. refugee resettlement program was systematically dismantled,” she says. “So, it is just this year that we're now starting this rebuilding effort to have the capacity to receive all of the refugees who we would like to come.”

Krause says they were already preparing for an increase in immigrants when President Biden raised the U.S. refugee immigration cap. But they were caught off guard by this surge.

Many of the immigrants who will land here may settle in Kansas City's Historic Northeast, where neighborhoods historically settled by Italian immigrants are now home to a mix of immigrants from Somalia, Burma, the Congo and Iraq.

Refuge KC founder Richard Casebolt says his organization, while not a State Department designee, has a mission to make immigrants and refugees feel welcome in their neighborhoods.

His nonprofit agency is based in Eleos Coffee — directly in the middle of Historic Northeast Kansas City.

He says the job of welcoming immigrants not only involves getting them housed but also helping them navigate their new life by helping them find jobs and helping them navigate American culture.

“We connect with them as neighbors as well as they hear about us and our services of English classes offering citizenship or offering emergency transportation to job interviews or to jobs,” Casebolt says.

Hudnall says that welcoming and getting the Afghans settled after their traumatic upheaval is the first priority of any of the agencies receiving the refugees.

To do that, he says, they will have to grow staff and find housing and other resources to get the new residents resettled.

But after years of cutbacks and low immigration numbers, positioning them to thrive and become self-sustaining while embracing their new community will be the ultimate goal.

“It's in these moments that we get to see our shared humanity,” Hudnall says. “When we respect one another, when we legitimately love one another, something beautiful happens."

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
Chris Young is an Assistant Producer for KCUR’s Up To Date. Contact him at chrisy@kcur.org.
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