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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Sofia Khan urges Kansas City to welcome in more refugees, no matter where they come from

A woman wearing a headscarf and long-sleeves with a black T-shirt that reads "KC for Refugees" stands in front of several racks of packed tote bags, clothes and other household items.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Sofia Khan helps families seeking safety in Kansas City. Here, she stands in a warehouse full of items often needed in refugees' homes.

Kansas Citians stirred by horrific scenes from Ukraine are reaching out to Sofia Khan with offers to help refugees who might move here. But Khan is still trying to meet the needs of immigrants from Afghanistan, who began arriving here by the hundreds in October — without the same outpouring of support.

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When the Russian attack on Ukraine first began in late February, Sofia Khan started receiving emails from Kansas Citians in distress.

Through her volunteer organization KC For Refugees, Khan mobilizes volunteers to help refugees start new lives from scratch.

"Several of these messages that came through just said, 'We want to help the Ukrainians. If a Ukrainian person comes to Kansas City, we have a place in our house, we want them to move in with us,'' Khan explains.

Khan is accustomed to people reaching out to get involved during a high-profile humanitarian crisis. But she was puzzled by a recurring sign-off she started seeing on recent emails.

This help is only for Ukrainians, people wrote.

"It's such a strange message to get," Khan says. "I have never had messages sent to me like this, where it was pretty clear that it doesn't matter if any other human being needs help, my help is just specific to this one group."

Khan, who originally hails from Pakistan, is a Kansas City physician and mother of three. Running KC For Refugees isn't her main career, but rather her passion.

Khan has always been an activist, but she first started helping refugees when Kansas City became home to people fleeing Somalia in 2008. She started her own organization during the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016 — to meet needs not covered by official resettlement agencies.

Back then, Khan had agreed to sponsor a Syrian family herself. By committing to covering the family's baseline expenses for a year, Khan was able to jumpstart their movement out of a refugee camp and into Kansas City.

The family turned out to be the first to arrive under the Obama administration's "Surge Operation" — a promise to bring 10,000 Syrian refugees to the United States, and to do it fast.

Widely celebrated here in town, the family's successful resettlement made Kansas City a destination for 35 additional Syrian families.

Even when humanitarian crises don't dominate headlines, Khan stays with the cause. She refuses to treat the pain of one refugee group as more or less deserving of her attention than another.

"You're here, you're a refugee. I don't need to probe into your story," she says. "I just know you ended up losing everything and you're trying to start a new life."

A woman wearing a headscarf is turned away from the camera. The back of her gray sweatshirt reads "Welcome Refugees" in many different languages. The words are formed into the shape of a heart.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Sofia Khan's sweatshirt for KC for Refugees reflects the diversity of cultures her all-volunteer agency helps.

KC For Refugees gets to work long before refugees even set foot in Kansas City.

Khan's volunteers stock homes with clothing in appropriate sizes. Resettlement organizations typically provide standard American kitchen implements, but Khan tracks down culturally specific tools and ingredients that might provide comfort in the form of familiar food.

For Muslim refugees, Khan's sure to have prayer rugs ready in each home.

Volunteers then greet new arrivals at the airport, bringing balloons for kids, flowers for adults, and snacks for everyone after a long journey.

"This is just to alleviate any anxiety they might have of entering our city and thinking whether the people here are gonna be welcoming or not," Khan says. "We are so happy to have you in Kansas City. We are just your neighbors, you know? We heard you're coming."

Home visits come next, so the group might discover a family's particular needs. If they end up in housing without decent access to public transit, Khan takes on the role of used car hunter.

She personally haggles for good deals, test driving vehicles to be sure they're solid, mobilizing funds to make the purchases. Nothing fancy, just a used car reliable enough to get people to a first job — allowing them to save up for something better once they're out of survival mode.

A woman wearing a headscarf stands in the middle of a room. She is surrounded by boxes and bags and shelves full of clothes, diapers and other household items.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Sofia Khan looks over the many life necessities collected and distributed by KC for Refugees.

Like everyone else, Khan is struggling with the stories and images out of Ukraine right now. It all reminds her of the devastation that prompted Syrians to flee.

"The similarities are what's hurting me," she says. "I broke down in tears when I saw an elderly guy outside his apartment complex pointing and crying and saying 'That was my house.' This guy has nothing left. Where is he going to go now? Or a mother holding a little child in a subway station, protecting themselves from the bombs... It looks very familiar."

Khan would happily connect Kansas Citians with the Ukrainian refugees they wish to assist — but the offers are slightly premature. The only Ukrainians she expects soon in the States are those joining family members.

For Ukrainians without connections to Kansas City, Khan doesn't foresee a major influx anytime soon. "They are in Europe," she explains. "They want to go back to Ukraine if the war ends."

Kansas City is experiencing a refugee wave, though — and it's more intense than any other Khan has seen.

It started after the United States withdrew forces from Afghanistan last summer. By August, the Taliban had taken control of the country, and many fled in fear of retaliation — including Afghans who worked for the U.S. government in professional capacities.

By October, some of these folks began arriving in Kansas City.

A woman wearing a headscarf holds a light, golden eastern-style garment. Next to her are many traditional Middle-Eastern clothes hanging on racks.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Sofia Khan displays racks of traditional clothing donated to her organization.

Usually, the pipeline to Kansas City runs at a trickle, Khan explains: a few refugee families one month, a few more the next. When the U.S. began urgently taking in immigrants from Afghanistan, about 1,000 people ended up in Kansas City in one month's time.

So many that Khan could hardly keep up with the airport greetings, let alone subsequent gestures, like the group's custom of gifting toys to small children.

"Even after being at this since October, we haven't even entered the toys phase," Khan tells me. "When somebody asked me, 'Can I collect toys?' I said, 'Literally, I need to figure out out if their rent will be paid. Are they still stuck in the hotel? Do they have a job?'"

Khan says that some Afghan refugees have been left in a hotel for two to three months at a time, seemingly forgotten. "They're doing some English class, but the kids have had no schooling for all that time," Khan says. "And that's the least of their problems. People are asking for underwear and clothes."

Khan is particularly concerned about single young women who worked as translators for the U.S. government, now set up in what she considers "inappropriate housing" from a safety standpoint. She tries to check on these women frequently, while working to get them re-housed.

"Their families were not allowed to come with them," Khan says. "And being a mother of young girls myself, I couldn't imagine what they're going through and what their families are going through. So I always tell them, 'Tell your families you have an auntie here.'"

Khan is also doing her best to make sure their first Ramadan in Kansas City is a special one.

"The most important thing you need is enough food in the house, so you don't have to go seek out food for the, you know, crack-of-dawn meal and the evening meal," Khan says.

She's worked with a Muslim food pantry to acquire halal meat and flour to make bread. And she's been delivering dates — the food traditionally eaten for iftar, to break the fast every evening.

A woman wearing a headscarf  stand amidst a cluttered space filled with blankets, clothes, plastic bins. She is standing near a small, red mattress and pillow that she unfurled.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Sofia Khan unrolls a toshak, used in many Afghan homes instead of sofas or chairs. Volunteers transformed cushions and pillows, sewing these items by hand for refugees.

Even now, their sense of safety remains tenuous; Khan said she couldn't connect me to talk with Afghan refugees for this story because they must continue guarding their anonymity.

"The Taliban is persecuting their families," she says. "I hear stories every day, 'My brother is missing, such person is missing, my mom said Taliban came to our house.' So it's a valid fear that they have."

That compassion that Kansas Citians feel for Ukrainians enduring unimaginable hardship? It could be put to good use helping Afghan refugees, who've experienced similar tragedies, and who are in our own city, right now.

Their struggle may not be the one currently in the news. But it continues — much closer to home.

Khan isn't judging people who want specifically to help Ukrainians, although she worries about what motivates the distinction between European refugees and those arriving from other parts of the world.

She's giving people the benefit of the doubt.

"I want help for those Ukrainian families too," she says. "I have saved all those emails of the people interested in helping Ukrainians. If a Ukrainian family comes, I will reach back. I'm not gonna be rude to anybody."

And for the Kansas Citians willing to help now, Khan's inbox is open.

For anyone wanting to chip in and help them out, KC For Refugees posts volunteer opportunities and updated donation wish lists online.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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