Arrive and Thrive

At the International Institute of St. Louis, a new federal program, Welcome Corps, invites American citizens to sponsor refugees as they build new lives in the metro.

Community

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

Haytham Mastkalo and his family are enjoying a sunny afternoon in their Affton home, filled with yard work, coffee around the kitchen table, St. Louis Cardinals gear, and general conversation about the day. It’s a typical scene for the Mastkalos, one defined by a sense of normalcy that has been hard-won ever since their lives were upended by the Syrian Civil War. Forced out of Aleppo, the Mastkalos achieved refugee status and found a new life in the United States after a long, arduous process that took them from refugee camps in Turkey to a new home in Arizona, and ultimately to their adopted home of St. Louis, where they have lived since 2020. 

Although grateful for where they are now, what it took to get here is not something they’d wish upon anyone — and their family is still not whole, as some family members are still living in refugee camps in Lebanon. Yet they’re hoping to soon be reunited and build a new life together in St. Louis with the help of the International Institute of St. Louis (IISTL) and a brand new federal program, Welcome Corps.

“For any refugee who has to leave their own country and go to another, it’s not easy,” Mastkalo says. “To leave your home and go somewhere with an unfamiliar language and culture is very hard, and you need time to build yourself. For me, after five or six years now, I feel like a better and more open person. Unfortunately, my sister and her family have not been able to do this like us, and are still living in very bad conditions in Lebanon. Now that this program has come out, it’s giving us hope. We are so thankful for the people who have given us the ability to do this.”

Pictured from left to right: Haytham Mastkalo; his mother, Sultana Omar; and his brother Rustum Mastkalo.

Launched in January 2023 by the U.S. Departments of State and Health and Human Services, Welcome Corps represents a transformative moment in the nation’s refugee policy by empowering everyday Americans to privately sponsor those who are fleeing conflict and looking to make a new life for themselves in the United States. Unlike other federal refugee resettlement programs, which rely on professional resettlement agencies, Welcome Corps lets individual Americans directly sponsor refugees by either being matched with someone who has already been approved for resettlement or by sponsoring someone they already know, typically a family member. 

In order to become a sponsor, individuals must form a group of at least five U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are over 18 years old and live in or near the same community. Groups can include family members, friends, work colleagues, church members, or even book club members — any U.S. citizen can participate. Additionally, groups must demonstrate that they can provide a minimum of $2,425 in financial support to each refugee being sponsored during a 90-day sponsorship period, and they must commit to providing several other types of support, ranging from airport reception, housing, and basic necessities to language support, healthcare, and education guidance and connection. 

In the metro area, the International Institute of St. Louis is playing a vital role in supporting those who are navigating this process.

When the program launched last January, IISTL became its first Private Sponsor Organization in the nation. Being a Private Sponsor Organization is a special designation that allows the institute to offer support to private sponsor groups of citizens and legal permanent residents who can tap into its expertise and existing network of community organizations and services. This way, as IISTL’s President and CEO Arrey Obenson explains, those who are sponsoring folks through Welcome Corps will have someone in their corner throughout every step of the process and beyond.

Pictured from left to right: Fatima Mastkalo, Rustum Mastkalo, Sultana Omar, Haytham Mastkalo, and Abduljabar Mastkalo.

“I want to say to anyone considering becoming a private sponsor that they are not alone,” Obenson says. “The International Institute has 100 years of experience welcoming people from all over the world — people who have come here, thrived, and become pillars of our community. They will not be on this journey on their own; they will have resources. Being a Private Sponsor Organization ourselves, we are here to help share our experience and help them create a network that they can rely on. I want to tell them that when they see people go from where they are when they arrive to what they are able to achieve with their support, it will be the most gratifying work of their lives.”

Like Mastkalo, St. Louis resident Sherif Manoo is relying on IISTL for support in his journey as a Welcome Corps private sponsor. Manoo is sponsoring his uncle, a Somali refugee who has been stuck in a Kenyan refugee camp for over seven years. His uncle was supposed to be reunited with Manoo and his other relatives in 2017, but delays in the process have left him unsure of when he will see them again. As Manoo explains, his family’s participation in the Welcome Corps program is the first time they’ve all felt hopeful about the situation in a long time.

“When we heard of Welcome Corps, we were really happy because it gives people the opportunity to get to this country,” Manoo says. “Before this, we were always checking on his case and just hoping he could get here one day, but now, it feels like he might have a way.”

International Institute President and CEO Arrey Obenson addresses IISTL employees during a recent staff meeting at the institute.

Brian Barlay, who previously worked with IISTL as its Lead Advocate for the Welcome Corps program, understands the frustration and hopelessness families like the Mastkalos and the Manoos experience when trying to reunite with their loved ones. As someone who has spent a significant amount of his professional life working with refugees, he’s experienced firsthand how difficult it can be for people to begin their new lives in the U.S., thanks to a sometimes complicated bureaucracy and slow-moving processes. Barlay is hopeful that not only will the Welcome Corps program help make the journey a little easier for refugees and their families, but that it will give American citizens a window into what refugees experience as well. 

“It is extremely difficult to reunite family members that are abroad, and the people who are currently going through (the private sponsor process) have tried different routes to get their families here,” Barlay says. “A lot of the people impacted by this program are individuals who came here as refugees and have a probability of knowing someone back home. But this also empowers everyday Americans to be a part of the immigrant journey, empathize with that journey, and see how difficult it is to get to the U.S., and then how difficult it is once they get here to integrate into society.”

Obenson echoes Barlay’s sentiment about how Welcome Corps can impact those who choose to be private sponsors as much as the refugees themselves. Obenson believes this extends from the individual private sponsors to the broader St. Louis community, which can show itself to be a leader on the international stage if enough people step up and heed the call to help those in need.

The International Institute of St. Louis is located in the city's Tower Grove East neighborhood.

“What is so powerful about this is that you may not know the people you are helping, but you know you can create opportunities for them to have a new beginning in St. Louis,” Obenson says. “They become community stakeholders, and their success is our success as a community. This could be a transformative initiative if we can mobilize more people to do this and to realize why it’s important for every child, man, and woman that benefits from it. It is not just helping them; it is helping us, because communities that have embraced diversity and people from different parts of the world have proven to become more prosperous. This is our opportunity to make St. Louis prosperous.”

For Obenson and his team at IISTL, this is not mere sentiment. In their years working with refugees in St. Louis, they have watched as the same people who arrived not knowing the language or how they would build a new life for themselves and their families transform into entrepreneurs, instructors, community organizers, essential workers, and engaged neighbors who, in turn, commit to helping those who are in the same position they were when they arrived.

Obenson and IISTL believe so strongly in the enrichment refugees bring to the St. Louis community that they have devoted a significant amount of resources to their Private Sponsor Organization program. The IISTL team commits to helping the sponsors and newly arrived individuals throughout their initial 90 days in the U.S. with everything from learning how to receive food stamps and a driver’s license to where to receive health and wellness checkups.

Max Kelly, who recently joined the team for the International Institute's Welcome Corps program, chats with President and CEO Arrey Obenson.

Manoo has experienced IISTL’s help as a vital lifeline firsthand. When he and his family arrived from Somalia nearly two decades ago, the organization helped him and his family get on their feet by introducing them to the area’s education and hospital systems and showing them the ins and outs of their new community. Now, alongside other program participants like the Mastkalos, he’s looking to the institute again to support his family — only this time, he, too, can be a pillar of support in that process. 

This empowerment, Obenson believes, is at the heart of the Welcome Corps program. But ultimately, it’s not just empowering the families of refugees and other program sponsors that will have the biggest impact. The Welcome Corps program is empowering St. Louis to be an example of what’s possible on the international stage and to help shape the city’s future — one in which everyone can prosper. 

“This is the moment where, as a community, we can decide to make a bold statement on what kind of community we want,” Obenson says. “Do we want to be passive and wait for things to happen, or do we want to be proactive and make things happen? We can do that by stepping up to be a private sponsor (in the Welcome Corps program) and saying to (the) world that we want St. Louis to be a welcoming community and I, as an ordinary citizen in this community, can play a part in this and bring together friends and families and welcome refugees and give them a place to call home. By giving hope for what a new future can be, we are defining the St. Louis we want and the welcoming community we want to be.”

A peek inside the International Institute of St. Louis, located in the city's Tower Grove East neighborhood.

Join the Story

  • Learn more about the Welcome Corps program, including how to get involved, here.
  • Learn more about the International Institute of St. Louis on its website and support its work here.
  • Connect with the International Institute on Facebook, X, and LinkedIn.