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The International Institute of St. Louis is preparing for an influx of Afghan immigrants and refugees. Scott Air Force Base service members, spouses and civilians are helping with the efforts.
The International Institute of St. Louis is preparing for an influx of Afghan immigrants and refugees. Scott Air Force Base service members, spouses and civilians are helping with the efforts. (Screenshot from Belleville News-Democrat video)

ST. LOUIS (Tribune News Service) — The International Institute of St. Louis is preparing to welcome at least 1,000, and maybe up to 1,400, Afghans to the region in the next three months, and service members from Scott Air Force Base are lending a hand.

The institute has been welcoming immigrants and refugees to the St. Louis region for 100 years with the goal to build a more inclusive society.

"We will welcome immigrants and refugees and their families and help them to become successful and productive in this community," said Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis. "It's really an elaborate engagement process that begins with welcoming them on arrival, housing them after arrival, ensuring that the children can be in school ... assess their language skills, find ways in which to match them with employment opportunities and anything that we can do to make them successful."

In a normal month the International Institute of St. Louis could receive 12 to 27 immigrants, but this influx is on a scale that requires the support of the St. Louis community.

"We've seen a phenomenal outflow of support from the community by way of donations. And with that, it became a huge logistical challenge for us to be able to receive, sort, store, and then eventually distribute these donations," Obenson said.

Retired Army officer Fred Wellman is now helping coordinate volunteer service members, spouses and civilians from Scott Air Force Base.

"I didn't serve in Afghanistan but did three tours in Iraq," Wellman said in a recent interview. "I helped my first interpreter's widow and children come here from Iraq and wanted to help now as our Afghan partners seek new lives.

"I moved back to St. Louis just a month ago and I always tell people to start at home and when I heard IISTL needed help, I was happy to organize service members and veterans in the area to assist," he said. "We have now done three projects at IISTL and incredibly, over 100 airmen of all ranks, military spouses, Air Force civilians and locals have come in to roll their sleeves up and help. It's just amazing to watch them step up to do the right thing for our partners."

Last week, service members from Scott Air Force Base were on site using their logistical skills to help reorganize, sort, store and make it possible for the institute to accept more donations. The group separated baby items, furniture, cooking items, and transferred them to vehicles, and unloaded them in a local warehouse to make room for more donations that arrive at the institute.

"Many people have said the way our country responds to this moment will define us for the rest of history," says Chelsea Bowers, volunteer and spouse of an airman serving at Scott Air Force Base, "so I am grateful to volunteer for IISTL, so that I can contribute my small part to this incredible mission and to ensure we do the right thing here at home."

Volunteers, donations and money are needed to help the institute welcome the Afghans to St. Louis.

"Well, there is never enough money to respond to a need like we have now. So we're always asking people to donate because we're building capacity here to be able to respond to this great wave that's coming to us," Obsenson said.

Donations to the International Institute can be made by going to its website, then to its donate menu. The list is constantly changing, but its most needed items are gift or Visa cards in any amount.

Gift cards will actually be put in the hands of the Afghans, "so they can have the dignity of going into a shop and doing their groceries themselves," Obenson said.

"We've seen a tremendous outpouring of support from the veterans who are actually approaching this, as one of them said to me, that the fight is not over. We went to Afghanistan and fought their way back here. But the fight is not over until our allies that fought with us find a place called home here in St. Louis," Obenson said.

(c)2021 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.)

Visit the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.) at

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