Amid global conflict, City of Refuge helps refugees find a home in mid-Missouri.
Tucked away comfortably in mid-Missouri, it’s easy for many to feel safe and unaffected as war rages in other parts of the world. However, that isn’t the case for the people behind the nonprofit organization City of Refuge and the community members it serves.
The organization has helped thousands of refugees from more than 20 countries find their footing after settling in mid-Missouri, assisting them with everything from housing to employment and learning a new language.
“[Our goal] is to help empower them, help celebrate their cultures and where they’ve come from, all while helping them get on their feet again,” says City of Refuge executive director, Debbie Beal. “They’ve all gone through a lot to get here.”
Creating a City
Surprisingly, City of Refuge began as a cleaning company called Safi Sana, which translates to “very clean” in Swahili.
“We started in 2010 when our founders happened across refugees that were living in some pretty dire circumstances, and employment was really hard to come by,” Beal says. “So [the organization] was started as a way to provide employment to folks that needed it — a cleaning company.”
It quickly became clear that there was a need for far more than just employment. From there, additional programs were established which eventually blossomed into what City of Refuge is today.
Now, City of Refuge aims to have a hand in every type of assistance that a refugee and their family may need: case management, English classes, legal consultation, funerals, credit building, navigating healthcare, and more.
“Even the little things — we’ll have someone ask, ‘What mail can I actually throw away?’ [Junk mail] can say ‘urgent’ in those big red letters, and it can be scary if you don’t understand the language,” Beal says, giving an example of how willing City of Refuge staff is to help in every aspect of an individual’s life.
“America is really, really different from Burma or Afghanistan,” she notes. “But we’re able to get people on the front end, like, ‘If you were a nurse or doctor in the country you came from, how can we help you get back to those things?’ or ‘What do you want to do?’ And giving them the tools and resources that they need to do that. We help point them in the right direction, not to be a crutch necessarily, but to really empower them and give them the tools to succeed in that capacity.”
It takes a village to do what City of Refuge does, as the organization assists roughly 1,500 refugees on an annual basis.
Expanding a City
Beal says that in light of recent events, it has become clear that City of Refuge will be welcoming more and more refugees and their families.
“We know that the need is increasing as the world around us is just in conflict all of the time. We’re really needed, and the need is critical towards our growth,” she explains. “It’s based on looking at what the needs are of our refugee friends and asking, ‘How do we meet those needs? How do we do it in a way that is sustainable and scalable?’”
Recently, that has meant relocating to a new, larger location and expanding the charity shop, the City Boutique. Though the boutique accepts donations and sells gently-used items like a typical charity resale shop, the boutique also features work from artisans all around the world.
“We have three women from Afghanistan who are selling their products at City Boutique, but we also have a global artisan wall where there’s jewelry and candles being sold — and one of those artists is a little 12-year-old girl,” Beal says. “We [plan] to expand our global artisans and City Boutique line.”
City of Refuge is also slated to open a preschool at the beginning of the new year, helping families with part-time childcare and early language learning.
Though there are over 180 volunteers at the organization, with an increasing need for assistance, the need for volunteers and partners is also growing. Beal explains that it’s more than just a volunteer opportunity, but a chance to make lasting friendships.
“I think the thing that is really unique about us is that we’re really focused on relationships,” she says. “We don’t want it to be transactional — where they come to us, they get what they need, repeat — but it’s about friendship, about relationships, us knowing them and them knowing us. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship and it takes time to form. Just to be able to invite more people and more [volunteers] into that, there’s something beautiful about the diversity — celebrating different cultures, food, and customs — that we see every day.”
Beal continues: “I think sometimes people think they need to go somewhere to experience different cultures, but there are refugees here from all over the world. Right here in Columbia, [they can experience] new cultures, new people, new languages. Sometimes it’s their neighbor.”
2010: Jen Wheeler, Lori Stoll, and several other community members found City of Refuge.
2011: Lori Stoll became the first employee and City of Refuge helped a family purchase a home for the first time.
2018: City of Refuge purchased and renovated its first office building, allowing for program expansion.
2021: City of Refuge purchased its new headquarters, tripling in size and serving as a community center.
2022: Thanks to its expanded capacity, City of Refuge starts a youth program, and City Boutique opens its doors.
2024: City of Refuge will open a preschool program to give young children an edge on English language acquisition.
City of Refuge & City Boutique
10 N. Garth Ave., Entrance is on Garth Street