January 2022 brought a first wave of about 600 Afghan refugees to the St. Louis, Missouri, area. Now at the end of 2022, more families are being relocated to the county. And local volunteers with big hearts and a willingness to serve are helping at every step.
When refugees arrive in the St. Louis area, they often start by staying in extended stay hotels while the International Institute of St. Louis — a federal resettlement agency — looks for rental housing. Sometimes it can take weeks, explained St. Louis JustServe coordinator Rock Erekson.
Erekson said volunteers with a local organization called Welcome Neighbor STL help take Afghan family members to grocery stores to buy food with gift cards donated by agencies in the area. As this was happening through the first few months of 2022, Erekson contacted a woman he had known for many years named Letty Preston Goering and invited her to help.
Goering set up an organization called “Kindness Begins With Me,” and started listing immigrant outreach service projects on JustServe.org, which is a website and app where community groups list their volunteer needs.
Meanwhile, during the February stake conference of the St. Louis Missouri Stake, the stake president invited all members of the stake to download the JustServe app and look for opportunities to serve.
And Elder Jeremiah J. Morgan, Area Seventy, invited stake Relief Society presidents to take more ownership over JustServe within their stakes, create a vision statement and help people look for ways to serve.
Soon many volunteers were helping gather supplies, give rides, teach English classes and fill many other needs at multiple locations throughout the community.
“St. Louis is packed with good-hearted, generous people and many wonderful organizations doing good for tens of thousands of people,” Erekson said.
Erekson began attending weekly partner updates for leaders of affiliated organizations serving refugees around St. Louis. He shared what JustServe could do to assist them in their efforts to serve. The organizations then registered on JustServe, creating a volunteer center called “The Greater St. Louis Area Refugee Connect.”
“In parallel to all of this, many wonderful relationships have been established and developed within the community with our new Afghan friends,” Erekson said.
In May, the International Institute of St. Louis was planning to host its first Eid-al Fitr Festival — a Muslim religious holdiay — for the Afghan refugees in the area. But the venue fell through. Erekson got permission for the group to use the Church’s Frontenac chapel in west St. Louis County.
The Frontenac building was where weekly English classes had been underway for 40 to 50 Afghan refugees, organized by Kindness Begins With Me. It is also near the hotels where many refugees had been temporarily staying.
The festival was held on May 16, with large crowds attending. Erekson said it was a wonderful and fun community event.
John Kaba Amini wrote on Facebook how grateful he was for the Church hosting the event at their building. “They were welcoming of all faiths and by far the most accepting people I have met,” he said.
The service continues as more families move in before the end of the year. For example, on Oct. 30, youth and adults helped a new refugee family move from a city location to a larger comfortable home.
“The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas South Central Community made this possible. Welcome Neighbor, Humankind, and JustServe all came together to assist this family in becoming self-reliant,” said Erekson in a JustServe writeup about the move.
Erekson said he and many others have become friends with many of the Afghans as they serve them. He said the relationships are only growing stronger as members of the Church and caring people in the community rally around the refugees to help.