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When refugees resettle in the Ozarks, volunteers ‘are like a family’

On March 20, 2024, International Institute of Southwest Missouri volunteer Marga Pogue visited a young Afghan family she's guiding as they resettle in the Ozarks following approval of their refugee status by U.S. authorities.
Gregory Holman/KSMU
On March 20, 2024, International Institute of Southwest Missouri volunteer Marga Pogue visited a young Afghan family she's guiding as they resettle in the Ozarks following approval of their refugee status by U.S. authorities.

It's the first day of Ramadan, and I'm in a vehicle with Marga Pogue, a volunteer working with the International Institute of Southwest Missouri to guide a young Afghan family that is resettling in the Ozarks.

Marga says, “You know, their family’s safety is something that’s a pretty big concern."

"Paramount," I answer.

"I mean, they are safe in Springfield," Marga says. Their family, you know, they worry about every day, so."

"Still back in Afghanistan," I say.

The Afghan family Marga is guiding is here alongside a growing population of refugees from many nations — all adjusting to resettlement in the American heartland with the help of the local International Institute.

Marga says, “I mean, I’ve just learned so much. And my family, my own family, sometimes feels like, ‘Wow you’re spending so much time with this family.’ I said, ‘Well they need me. They need me.’ You know, my family is doing fine — they don’t need me at this level that this family does. And so, being able to do this — gee, it’s wonderful for me. And I feel like it’s good for them, too. But yeah, it’s part of our faith, too. God gives us a lot of things, we feel we have a lot to give, too.”

Marga is a longtime Springfield resident serving as a community sponsorship volunteer helping out a refugee family through her church — Westminster Presbyterian.

The International Institute of Southwest Missouri makes arrangements with volunteers like Marga and their churches or other organizations. In fact, the Institute is seeking more groups willing to guide refugees approved for resettlement by the U.S. authorities.

"How courageous these people are — because I would be afraid to leave my country in any situation — they had to be totally afraid of their situation there to have to leave." Marga says. "Because they were leaving family and everybody. So courageous, they've left family, and also I’ve learned recently that there’s so many refugees in the world. We’ve learned this from the Institute. They’ve told us how refugees, how people are moving from country to country all the time.”

Earlier this month, Marga took me to visit the family she’s guiding. They live in a nice but modest rental in north Springfield — and heartily welcomed us as we knocked on the door.

The dad, Naqibullah, is 36. His wife is 27. They have three young daughters, ages 7, 5 and 2.

Naqibullah explains, “In Afghanistan, I’m working at the U.S. embassy, Kabul, Afghanistan. Sometimes I’m working as interpreter and sometimes as a security guard.”

The stakes for people like Naqibullah — who helped the U.S. government during the so-called Afghan “forever war” — are high. Life-and-death.

“There's been, you know, four presidents, 20 commanders on the ground, seven or eight chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, you know, dozens of secretaries of defense, et cetera.”

Those are the words of U.S. Army General Mark Milley speaking to Congress after America’s chaotic Afghan exit in fall 2021. During that year and the year before, the Trump and Biden administrations ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Almost immediately, quicker than expected, the Afghan leadership from before 9/11, a repressive theocracy called the Taliban, re-took control.

Out of an abundance of caution, in case their families back in Afghanistan could face retaliation, I agreed not to use Naqibullah’s full name in this reporting — or any names of his wife and their three young daughters.

I listen as Naqibullah's youngest eagerly engaged Marga, conversing in the American English she's learning alongside her family's maternal language, Dari. "What's that?" the girl asks Marga, prompting Marga to observe that "she's going to be bilingual, for sure."

In the U.S., Naqibullah’s girls will get an education past 5th or 6th grade, which wouldn’t be allowed under Taliban control. Overall, he describes life in Springfield as “happy,” and says they’ve been treated well. Of course, issues come up: Cost of living, and reliable transportation being two of the bigger ones.

Naqibullah explains: “At the first time, I have the car problem right now, thank you so much for my volunteer Ms. Marga, she is really, really helpful for my family. When my car is broken, she bring another car for temporary for a month. Every time she is helpful for me for my family. When Ms Marga, after one week, every week she is coming, sometimes she is not coming. But my family, my kids — ‘Where’s Ms Marga? Ms. Marga not coming. Look! Everytime, she look outside.”

I ask, "It’s a big event when Ms. Marga is coming?”

"Yeah, yeah," Naqibullah replies. "Ms. Marga is like a family.”

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.