City of Refuge is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization incorporated in 2010. Our programs have grown consistently in recent years to meet particular gaps in care among refugees who have resettled to the Columbia area. Jen Wheeler, Lori Stoll, and several other community members collaborated 13 years ago to found the organization after seeing many refugees in need of assistance. Wheeler started the Safi Sana (“very clean” in Swahili) cleaning service to employ refugees and give them work experience in the US. She also began holding garage sales and collecting donations for refugees in her own home.



In 2011, Lori Stoll became the first employee. Her car was her office, meeting with refugees in their homes and helping them with access to medical services and employment. City of Refuge helped a family purchase a home for the first time, and Lori learned about applying for social benefits so she could help refugees get the help they needed. Our English Buddy Program started three years later.



In 2016, Loris husband, Barry Stoll, joined the team as Director and Lori became the Refugee Care Coordinator. They helped refugees purchase insurance through a friend, Nancy Allison. When Nancy heard that City of Refuge lacked office space, she offered one at no cost, helping the organization to accomplish even more. The next year brought a major increase in awareness of and interest in refugees in Columbia. Staff and volunteer opportunities grew accordingly.



Garrett Pearson was hired as Executive Director in 2018, and City of Refuge purchased and renovated its building at 7 East Sexton Road, which facilitated the development of several new programs, including Homework Helpers, Healthy Cooking Classes, and a new Sewing Program.



In August 2021, Debbie Beal was hired as Executive Director, beginning a new season of strategic planning and assessment of refugee needs, as simultaneously across the globe, the United States airlift of refugees from Afghanistan began. 300 of these individuals would resettle in Columbia by the end of 2021. In October 2022, the organization launched a new era with the purchase of our headquarters at 10 North Garth Avenue & 2 East Walnut, triple the size of our previous facility. This building is serving as a community center where refugee groups have more space to gather and to engage with neighbors in Columbia. An increased sense of belonging is linked to indicators of mental and physical health, and we are facilitating belonging for our clients and their natural affinity groups. Referrals to legal services and facilitation of transportation needs will remain important in our work with them, as well.

Our program expansion in recent years has focused on the needs of children and youth, equipping them to eventually participate in the workforce as they reach adulthood. In 2020, we began a school liaison program to equip refugee families to understand the expectations of teachers and schools-and to equip schools with greater knowledge of the needs of these families. In 2021, we started a birth care program to help mothers navigate pregnancy in America.



In 2022, we started a youth program to provide belonging and develop the assets of the particularly vulnerable teenage subpopulation among the families we serve. This group now serves over 30 refugee teenagers on a weekly basis. Later this year, we will open a preschool that gives young children an edge on English language acquisition prior to their primary school enrollment.

City of Refuge has been recognized with various awards for our contributions to the community, including the Missouri Progress Award for nonprofits, the University of Missouri Martin Luther King Award, the Columbia Values Diversity Award, and the Kindness to Individuals Award.