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How this small town is becoming the most successful refugee resettlement in the nation

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Posted at 1:12 PM, Jun 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-17 15:48:56-04

POCATELLO, ID. — The news of Afghan refugees arriving in the United States is not making headlines anymore, but these families are here to create a new life in America. Months into their resettlement, many of these families are still struggling.

But, one small town in Idaho is resettling refugee families differently, and now, it’s become one of the most successful resettlement efforts in the U.S.

Pocatello, Idaho has a population of 55,000. The quiet community was once a stop on the Oregon Trail. Now, this town is welcoming weary travelers again, but they’re coming to stay.

“As soon as we heard about these folks who are our new neighbors, who are our partners and allies actually in our national defense, who had to flee their country and come here, we were all in,” said Deacon Scott Pearhill from the Holy Spirit Catholic Community Church.

Pocatello has never taken in refugees before, but when Afghan families needed a place to go, community leaders here had an idea.

“We don't look at what we are different. We look (at) what we have the same. That is the secret sauce,” said Dale Spencer, president of the board of directors of Temple Emanuel.

Spencer, Pearhill and several other faith leaders formed an interfaith coalition to help refugees. Typically, refugee families brought to the U.S. are sponsored by one resettlement organization or one church, but many churches and temples in Pocatello pitched in to help the same family.

“It takes a village. In this case, it takes the town of Pocatello to help refugees,” said Pearhill.

The interfaith coalition collects household goods, clothing, bicycles and anything these families will need.

“Our goal is to help them become part of the community, not to keep them as a separate entity,” said Wayne Shipman, the pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd.

“There’s an expression in Judaism called ‘Tikkun Olam,’ which means to ‘heal the world.’ Jews are called to heal the world. Well, I can't heal the world. But, I can heal something in Pocatello,” said Spencer.

The interfaith coalition works with local businesses, collecting donations from anywhere and everywhere.

Local restaurant, The College Market, collected all kinds of household goods and clothing for refugees from the community. Each time the restaurant asked people to donate, they were overwhelmed with responses.

“It makes you more involved in your community, and it helps kind of snowball people into doing more community-oriented stuff, which I think is a big deal,” said Kate Baker of The College Market.

So many people have asked to help, they now have a waiting list of people hoping to donate and mentor refugee families. The Pocatello Church of Latter-Day Saints is also involved in the interfaith coalition and has sent goods and supplies to the families just arriving.

Wendy Lehman of Catholic Charities of Idaho coordinates the collection and drop off of all these items.

“I have goosebumps even talking about it because it's so just powerful and humbling that people are willing to embrace these newcomers that they don't know into their homes,” said Lehman, who drives several hours to the airport to pick up a new family each time one arrives.

Every day, Lehman hears the stories of survival from the refugees themselves. These stories push her to work even harder to welcome these families.

We spoke with a new arrival who we will call Sayid. He was a Black Hawk pilot in Afghanistan and helped U.S. forces for years. He’s asked us to conceal his identity because he’s worried about his relatives in Afghanistan. Still, he described what it was like leaving.

“It was like the darkest day in the history of Afghanistan,” Sayid recounted. “We understand the Taliban is coming, so we didn't have any choice to stay here. Their No. 1 enemy was Afghanistan Air Force members. This was very scary for me. Every squadron, they just tried to get their own aircraft and get out of Afghanistan. The best place that we chose for going, it was Uzbekistan because it was the nearest. So, then we flew to Uzbekistan.”

He said he and some fellow soldiers stayed in Uzbekistan for several weeks, trying to figure out their next steps, when finally, they were flown to the United States.

“Then I came to America. At least I feel that…I know I'm safe,” said Sayid.

Safe because here: he has an opportunity. 100% of refugees have housing because more housing is available here.

“In Boise, and some of the other places, there's 1% availability for rental units where Pocatello was more — 13%,” said Lehman.

Jobs are easier to find in Pocatello too. More than 80% of refugees are employed: a number much higher than the national average. Additionally, the community offers support much longer than the typical few months of help refugees receive.

“We work with them for no less than one year and then up to five years if we need to. So we're here for the long run,” said Lehman.

The long-run means no limits. Pearhill is also teaching many refugees, including Sayid, to drive.

Catholic Charities is also providing mental health support to the refugees in Pocatello.

“There is incredible trauma,” said Pearhill. “We have people who have come to Pocatello who have been shot. We have people who have come to Pocatello who left behind family members. Some of their family members might still be in danger, and very definitely they have trauma. And so Catholic Charities of Idaho actually provides psychological and trauma support.”

Pocatello will likely accept more refugees in the months to come.

“What we're doing is participating in hope,” said Pearhill. “Our community and the whole world needs signs of hope. Needs stories of hope. And this is one of them.”

Pearhill said the Interfaith Coalition is also getting calls from refugees across the country and those who are still in Afghanistan who would like to move to Pocatello.

“What we're hearing is they have friends from Afghanistan that have been settled in bigger cities and are receiving less initial care and support and ongoing support than is found sometimes in those bigger cities,” said Pearhill. “Our small town has really been able to wrap its arms around them and give them a supportive hug, so to speak.”

These efforts make Pocatello one of the most successful resettlement efforts in the country: a model city leaders hope others will follow.

“I'm hoping people will be able to put that fear away and experience the joy that we are experiencing here,” said Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad.