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The International Institute of Southwest Missouri has helped resettle 860 refugees since it opened in Springfield in 2013

Rebekah Thomas, director of the International Institute of Southwest Missouri
Michele Skalicky
Rebekah Thomas, director of the International Institute of Southwest Missouri

In the Sense of Community Series, "Making a New Life in the Ozarks," you'll hear refugees' stories and learn about programs and people who are helping them on their journey.

Rebekah Thomas leads a somewhat small but mighty team at the International Institute of Southwest Missouri located in north Springfield.

The organization works to resettle refugees who come to southwest Missouri.

“We locate housing, household supplies for families when they arrive, make sure they have everything they need," Thomas said. "We do cultural orientation to help them make that adjustment. We provide community connection through integration programs with volunteers and communities — and just different community partners, so, like Jordan Valley (Community Health Center) and Community Partnership of the Ozarks and different organizations that we work with and we partner with to help support refugee families.”

And they work with refugees to get them into jobs as quickly as they can. Thomas said refugees come to the U.S. with debt from travel expenses, and they have to pay that back within five years. II’s goal is to have them working within the first 60 days after they arrive. You can hear more about that in another Sense of Community story.

Last year, Thomas’s team of four became a team of 16 in order to provide support to more families arriving here from another part of the world. And they rely on volunteers, part of the Community Sponsorship Program, who walk alongside families as they find their place in a community far from their home countries. You’ll hear more about those volunteers in another Sense of Community story.

The International Institute’s approved capacity this year with the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, a branch of the U.S. State Department, is 300. Thomas said they’ve been asked to increase the capacity, but it hasn’t yet been approved.

So far this year, II’s Mitch Brashers said they’ve resettled 120 refugees. Since the International Institute of southwest Missouri opened in 2013, they’ve helped resettle 860 people who have fled their home country because of fear of persecution. Many had sought temporary asylum in a neighboring country before moving to the U.S.

“And so they’re unable to return to their home countries," said Thomas. "The U.N., of course, works to try and help negotiate opportunities for those individuals to return to their homes, but, you know, that doesn't typically happen and so, the United States is part of third country resettlement.”

Thomas said people who have fled their home country and sought asylum in other countries can apply for third party resettlement through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The U.S. is one of more than two dozen nations that do third country resettlement, she said.

“Once the person is admitted into that program, it's usually about an 18-month process," she said, "but we have refugee families that have lived their entire lives as refugees. An example would be some of our Somalia families that are coming out of Kenya dadaab. They have lived in a refugee camp — some of them up to three generations have lived in a refugee camp — basically within a ten-mile radius, so those are really tragic and sad stories, and it's heartbreaking, so the fact that they get an opportunity to have a new life in the United States and create a path for themselves and create security for themselves is something that we're really proud of."

"Over the last 30 years, hundreds of thousands of people have fled Somalia due to political instability and a dangerous civil war that broke out in the 1990s," the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said on its website.

Some Congolese and Myanmar refugees the International Institute of Southwest Missouri has helped resettle in southwest Missouri had lived in refugee camps anywhere from five to 15 years "and then they come here to the United States, and so it's just like a whole new world for them,” Thomas said.

"The displacement situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the most complex and long-standing humanitarian crisis in Africa," according to UNHCR.

And, in Myanmar, "conflict triggered by the military takeover in Myanmar in February 2021 has resulted in recurring, protracted and new displacement," the UNHCR said.

A huge barrier many have to face when they arrive is learning English. In another Sense of Community story, you’ll hear about the Welcome Family Program, run by the English Language Institute at Missouri State University, which is helping refugee adults learn English and refugee children get ready for public school.

Thomas points out that southwest Missouri has many more refugees than the 860 people they’ve helped resettle here through the U.S. State Department. They also provide support for refugees who come to the area on their own. Those include the Ukranian population that were resettled in Seattle and Portland and wanted to find a more rural area to call home.

Thomas said the International Institute works to educate the public about the refugees they’re serving and the diversity they bring to the Ozarks. One way they do that is through Culture Fest, held the last Saturday of each September on Historic C-Street.

"It brings it all together, so you can see the richness and just the depth of people that we have here of all the different languages and all the different peoples," said Mitch Brashers.

Thomas points out the variety of cultures that are in the Ozarks: There’s the Chin, Karen and Rohingya communities from Myanmar as well as people from Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, Iraq, Pakistan, Cuba, Haiti, various places in Africa, including the Congo, Somalia, Cameroon and Kenya, and more.

A painting done by a former child client at the International Institute of Southwest Missouri
Michele Skalicky
A painting done by a former child client at the International Institute of Southwest Missouri

She loves watching those who come here as children grow and thrive. She shows me a painting of a tree and a swing in shadow from a brilliant sunset created by a girl from the Democratic Republic of Congo. That girl is now in college and was the reason the International Institute started a tutoring program for kids who need a little bit of extra help in school. That program continues to provide assistance to refugee children. Another child her organization helped was just accepted into the Missouri State Highway Patrol Academy.

Thomas said those who come here as refugees contribute to the vibrancy of the communities in which they settle.

“I think it’s such a privilege. I know I feel like we live in a little microcosm of diversity," she said, "and it's just — it's an exciting place to work. I think I literally have the best job in the whole world as far as just meeting people from different walks of life, different countries, different cultures. I think it's a privilege. It's a privilege do this work.”


Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.