The International Institute of Southwest Missouri (IISMO) marked World Refugee Day on June 20 with an International Potluck and Soccer Tournament. Members of the Southwest Missouri Refugee Community and IISMO Volunteers came together to share food, games, stories, and laughter. (Photo provided)

OPINION |

Most people who live in Springfield are aware of the crisis in Ukraine. However,  Springfieldians may not know about the key organization that helps immigrants and refugees with resettlement in Springfield: The International Institute of Southwest Missouri

IISMO is a branch office of the St. Louis International Institute. The mission for both organizations is to provide opportunities for immigrants and refugees to thrive to create a welcoming, prosperous, and healthy region for all. 

When families and individuals resettle to another area, it is imperative for them to receive essential economic and cultural integration services, which includes English classes, employment, orientation, and citizenship preparation. 

It is also critical to host events and provide  presentations to the newcomers and the community members to help with acclimation to the new area — not assimilation. It is important for them to retain their culture and identity as long as it is within the law. This process helps to build inclusive and mutually respectful relationships between foreign-born newcomers and community members.

IISMO was established in Springfield in 2015 and 532 individuals have been assisted through their office. Rebekah Thomas, director for the IISMO, said the group knows there are more refugees and parolees in the community who have not received services from their organization. IISMO has the capacity to assist 200 refugees and 200 parolees each year. Most of the refugees in Springfield are from Congo, Ukraine and Afghanistan.

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Children from an Afghan refugee family enjoyed playing with sidewalk chalk during World Refugee Day celebration sponsored by the International Institute of Southwest Missouri (Photo provided).

Currently, they are assisting 49 refugees and 107 parolees. A refugee is defined as a person who was forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution, or national disaster. According to Amnesty, org, the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are protected by international law regardless of how or why they arrive in a country. A refugee has a two-year legal status. Parole is an available tool under the Immigration and Nationality Act that allows certain individuals to enter the U.S. and stay temporarily without an immigrant or non-immigrant visa.

IISMO is assisting 85 individuals from Ukraine designated as parolees who entered the U.S. through the Mexican Border. Parolees can be hired in the U.S., and they can stay in the U.S. for one year, Thomas said. Parolees do not receive sustainable support other than food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid and other related services. They must apply for employment authorization. Once authorization is received, they can apply for a Social Security number. Other than local churches providing support, they need assistance with legal expenses.

IISMO is assisting 33 individuals from Ukraine in the resettlement program with family reunification. These individuals entered the U.S. as a refugee and received all initial resettlement services. They receive a small monthly resettlement allowance for each family. They enter the U.S. with employment authorization, a Social Security number, and a clear path to citizenship.

There is also a sponsorship program (U4U) where U.S. Citizens can sponsor a family from Ukraine. Individuals through this program can receive employment authorization and stay in the U.S. for two years. However, there is no clear path to citizenship. IISMO is currently assisting four individuals in this program.

How Springfieldians can help

How can Springfieldians help? Employers can provide job opportunities. Businesses and organizations can provide long-term funding for sustainable English learning courses. Afghan women need the ability to work from home. Trauma informed newcomer programs are needed for children. Community sponsorship for programs and events for the refugee community need funding.

An IISMO fund is being established with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks to accept donations. You can make online donations at: cfozarks.org/iismo

I remember a time I was in a board meeting for a Springfield nonprofit organization. The issue the board members were trying to address was to make sure youth in foster care had gowns, with all the accessories, to attend senior class programs. In less than 10 minutes, $10,000 was raised. Springfield is known for addressing crisis and immediate needs.

I know Springfield has other needs such as those without homes, poverty, and other issues. But are we not our brother’s/sister’s keeper?

Francine Micheline Pratt serves as director of Prosper Springfield, a community collective impact model charged with oversight of community goals to reduce the poverty rate and increase postsecondary educational attainment. She is president of Pratt Consultants LLC, which focuses on community engagement, business infrastructure development, conflict resolution, strategic planning, and diversity training. She also is a creative partner for the Queen City Soul Kitchen restaurant. Email: prattconsultants@yahoo.com