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By the end of 2016, 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide because of persecution, conflict, or violence.
Imagine being forced to flee your home, your country, and your way of life just to survive. All you have is what you could carry with you. Where will you go? Perhaps a new country, where you don’t speak the language. What will you do? Everything seems foreign and confusing. How can you hold onto any hope of safety, home, family? Where will you find refuge?
Over the last decade, 13,466 refugees from 40 different countries around the world settled in Missouri. Mid-Missouri alone has more than 8,000 refugees and immigrants, with an average of 200 new refugees coming to Columbia every year.
Barry Stoll, director of refugee services for City of Refuge, says that Columbia has earned a positive reputation for welcoming and extending hospitality toward refugees.
City of Refuge is a local nonprofit created to help and serve refugees and immigrants in Mid-Missouri. Barry’s wife, Lori, explains that the organization helps refugees acclimate to our culture even after government assistance begins to wane. “It’s a lifelong learning process when you haven’t grown up here; the culture is so different,” she says.
City of Refuge puts 90 percent of its budget toward refugee assistance and advocacy. Volunteers help refugees with many parts of daily life that are often taken for granted: finding a job, learning to drive, opening bank accounts, visiting the doctor, etc. Barry notes that volunteers benefit as well — they have an opportunity to help others while experiencing the joy and beauty of another culture.
One refugee who has been helped by City of Refuge is Taweh Helnar, who goes by Taw Taw. The 26-year-old refugee from Myanmar has lived in Columbia since November 2009, when he arrived with his parents and five siblings. Coming from a farming village with no roads or cars to Columbia was a big adjustment.
Taw Taw says: “At first in the U.S., it was hard. As time goes on, it gets better. We are not alone and have a friend to stay with us, teach us how to live…It gets better and better every day. But we still need help.”
Taw Taw smiles as he describes the ways City of Refuge has helped him and his family: “Helping with home repairs, providing mechanic work on cars. College students have come to the house and held an evening class on English language. They help with homework and tutoring.”
City of Refuge helps not only with practical needs, but also emotional ones. Barry explains that, for refugees, “knowing they have a friend is by far the most important thing. A refugee who has lived here for eight years recently reminded me of this, saying ‘Yes, we can learn to work, drive, be independent, but to have a friend is the most reassuring and positive thing.’
“A friend won’t just give you a ride to the store — they will also tell you that ‘in America, this is how we do something.’ A friend will go the extra mile in helping adapt to our culture. We assist and advocate,” Barry says.
The Stolls embody this advocacy with Taw Taw by encouraging his efforts to become a certified mechanic. Taw Taw recently received funding from Job Corps, a U.S. Department of Labor initiative, to enroll in Toyota’s technician program in Utah. His dream is to open his own garage someday and help other refugees. “If I had my own business, I would work together with City of Refuge and help other people,” he says. “I’d fix cars, provide transportation, hire refugees.”
Barry beams, adding: “It would be a dream of mine, too, to see Taw Taw open his own shop. I will do everything in my power to make that happen.”
Taw Taw clearly loves living in Columbia, describing how “amazing” the people are in the ways they help refugees. “I am very, very thankful to the people who make a difference for people’s lives who are here from overseas – to support them and make their life better and easier.”
Taw Taw and his family aren’t the only ones, in Columbia and elsewhere, in need of assistance. Organizations like City of Refuge provide a vital resource for those who are pushed out of their communities, who are no longer safe there, or are looking for a new place to call home.
Financial donations to City of Refuge are tax deductible.