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Jen Wheeler, City of Refuge offers helping hand to refugees

Thursday, September 27, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:56 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 28, 2012
Jen Wheeler sells donated items on Facebook at discounted prices to raise money for refugees around Columbia. Wheeler started City of Refuge, a nonprofit organization, in 2010.

COLUMBIA — A Burmese refugee, one of 259 who came to Columbia in the last five years, had reportedly been forced into slave labor before coming to the United States.

His story: He was confined to a ship and forced to fish and was kept awake by injections of cocaine and alcohol into his system.

He escaped the brutality and ended up in Columbia, but the intimidation and stress of relocation increased his insecurity. He turned to alcohol and became addicted.

The man burned through one job after another. Most of his friends gave up on him. City of Refuge did not.

He was introduced to City of Refuge by another Burmese family who lived nearby. With dogged determination, the man went through a rehabilitation program and has been sober for several months.

City of Refuge is a nonprofit organization founded by Jen Wheeler, a former advertising executive who saw a need to assist refugees and immigrants.

The organization's mission is to guide refugees to become active members of the community. Donations come from friends and supporters. Garage sales are also held throughout the year.

Wheeler worked with the Burmese man, as well as dozens of others who have come to Columbia, often with nothing. According to the U.S. State Department, 86,034 refugees from Burma, also known as Myanmar, arrived in the United States between 2007 and 2011. Of those refugees, 1,457 ended up in Missouri.

"I saw the need for an overarching organization that cared for a variety of needs for refugees," Wheeler said. 

Approximately 160 refugees land in Columbia from around the world each year. They flee a number of war-torn or  impoverished countries. Most of them come from Burma, Burundi, Eritrea, Rwanda, the Congo and Iraq, Wheeler said.

Refugees from Iraq, often those who helped the U.S. Army and the federal government during the Iraqi War, flee for their own safety. Those from Rwanda and Burundi came to the United States during civil wars and genocides that ravaged their countries.

Wheeler started City of Refuge in November 2010 after she encountered a number of refuges, including a Kenyan girl who lived in her home for a year and a half.  Another refugee, a father of eight who was desperate to provide for his family, was the actual spark Wheeler said she needed to start the organization. 

She began with a cleaning service known as Safi Sana, which means "very clean" in Swahili. In the months after starting the service, Wheeler said that she realized her employees — mostly refugees and new immigrants — required more than simply work.

That's when she started City of Refuge.

One person it has helped was an aspiring young man who had won a Bill and Melinda Gates scholarship. The City of Refuge helped him find a college, bought him a laptop for school and even found him an internship at a construction company.

"I wanted him to have some experience with that," Wheeler said of the internship. 

Another refugee in Columbia had a friend back home in Burundi who urgently needed medical help. City of Refuge was able to generate enough money to fly the friend to Kenya so he could get hip surgery. Wheeler said the procedure saved his life. 

Another Burmese man was told by his government that he had to build a house within seven days. If he didn't, he learned, he would be imprisoned. He left the country, Wheeler said, and found his way to Columbia.

Today, anywhere from 15 to 20 people, including a former Rwanda refugee, assist the City of Refuge with its mission.

"The most rewarding part is when someone catches my vision and is excited about that," Wheeler said. "They see what I'm trying to do, and they want to help."

Board member Lori Stoll became involved years ago when refugees came to her church. Stoll said she encounters four to eight refugees a day, most from African countries.

She teaches them problem-solving skills and ways to interact with doctors and other providers. Stoll also helps them with food, insurance, clothing, transportation and even cultural topics.

"Many grew up in camps and were never exposed to civilized life," Stoll said. "Many don't have the skills to live in a city."

The employee manager of Safi Sana, Melissa Worley, said she comes in contact with refugees every day.

She talked to an Iraqi woman last week, as she does often, to tell her she had a job for her.

Worley said that because the woman can't speak English well, much of their face-to-face conversations end up with both laughing about being unable to really understand each other. 

"I think the refugees are wonderful," Worley said. "I'm always inspired by their stories and what they've gone through."

Of all the refugees she encounters, she said, not a single one complains, which puts things in perspective for her. Americans, she suggested, complain about insignificant matters and often take things for granted. 

Recently, City of Refuge applied for a grant with United Way so Safi Sana can pay its employees more and help them with health care, transportation and other needs.

For the time being, however, Wheeler said City of Refuge is focusing on helping refugees find jobs and aiding them any way they can.

“My ultimate goal is to not be needed, for refugees to be so integrated that they don’t need our help anymore,” Wheeler said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.


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