Church honors woman’s decades of work with refugees

Alice Wolters worked with immigrants as they started life anew.
Sunday, February 20, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:51 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

Alice Wolters has helped more than 1,000 refugees from almost 15 countries resettle in mid-Missouri during the past three decades.

But the speech she gave at a dinner held in her honor Friday evening at First Christian Church made it clear she refuses to take too much credit despite her years of service.

“The real story in refugee resettlement is refugees and volunteers,” Wolters said. “We’re just facilitators.”

Wolters, 54, who lives in Jefferson City, recently changed careers and left her position as director of Refugee and Immigration Services of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City. She now works for a Jefferson City law firm.

Several of the people she helped resettle were present as she accepted a certificate of appreciation. Wolters was given the award on behalf of the church’s World Outreach Committee in recognition of the support she has given First Christian Church’s refugee resettlement efforts since the 1970s.

Those who attended the dinner praised Wolters’ energy and said they couldn’t believe she has worked with the diocese for more than three decades.

“I asked her why they started letting people work when they were 12,” World Outreach Committee member C.K. Hoenes said of Wolters.

Members of First Christian Church said interfaith partnerships like the one they’ve had with the diocese are common.

“My belief is we’re all in this life together, no matter who we are, no matter our faith.” Wolters said.

Judith Miller, a member of the World Outreach Committee, agreed and said many of the refugees her church helped resettle are Muslims or belong to Christian denominations.

The diocese and other organizations serve as sponsors for refugees and offer them financial assistance for six months while they adjust to their new life.

This adjustment period may involve learning how to drive, taking English classes, and learning how to use American money. Miller said the main goal is to help refugees adjust to their new environment and become self-sufficient.

Mirna and Selen Becevic relocated to the United States more than four years ago from Bosnia. Selen Becevic said he realizes there are larger Bosnian communities in cities like St. Louis and Chicago, but he said things are going well for him and his wife in Columbia.

“It’s small, quiet, and everything is pretty close,” Becevic said. The couple said Wolters helped them adjust to their new lives when they first arrived in Columbia. Since then they have helped other refugees by serving as interpreters. Selen works at the Columbia Days Inn while Mirna Becevic works at University Hospital and purses a degree in sociology from Columbia College.

Sanita Hasanovic, 14, arrived in Columbia four years ago with her parents. Her family is also from Bosnia. Wolters greeted them at the airport when they first arrived. Hasanovic attends West Junior High and said her parents are proud that she makes good grades.

“My parents weren’t able to finish school at home due to the war,” Hasanovic said.

Since the 1970s, Wolters has helped three major groups of refugees resettle in mid-Missouri. During the mid-1970s, Wolters assisted Vietnamese refugees. In the 1980s, she worked with Cambodian refugees and worked with Bosnians in the 1990s.

Wolters said smaller groups from places such as Sudan and Liberia have sought asylum in the United States because of wars or other forms of civil strife. Despite their cultural differences, Wolters said all these groups share a common bond — their strength.

“We can’t imagine their resiliency,” Wolters said. “To pick up the pieces and put their lives back together. I couldn’t do it.”

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