Commerce lives out its values by helping refugees resettle in the Midwest.
In late 2021, when news broke about the U.S.-led evacuation of Afghanistan, people at Commerce Bank took notice. “We thought it was likely that some of the refugees being evacuated would end up in the markets we serve,” says Molly Hyland, senior vice president and director of community relations at Commerce.
“We immediately asked ourselves how we as a company could support those people as they arrived. We’re always focused on our communities, so to us, it felt like the right thing to do.”
In time, the bank created a series of new initiatives focused on four critical areas where Commerce’s capabilities intersected with newly arrived refugees’ needs: employment, financial education, banking services and volunteerism.
As Commerce community development officer Crystal Avery-Morris explains, this type of support aligns with the bank’s values. “We viewed it as critical that we play a role in working with the Afghan refugees who were coming to our markets,” she says. “These refugees were seeking a hand up, not a handout, and we wanted to respond with solutions to fit that need. We recognized there was a lot we could do, with everything from financial education sessions taught by Commerce team members who are fluent in Pashto, to interviewing qualified candidates for employment opportunities at the bank.”
Additionally, Commerce worked to tailor their banking services to the needs of refugees as much as possible — for example, by introducing them to types of accounts that do not require a photo ID to open. The bank also identified opportunities for team members to volunteer their time in ways that would help refugees settle in their new country, such as helping with youth soccer clinics, welcoming events and household item drives.
In St. Louis, the bank has collaborated for many years with the International Institute and the St. Louis Mosaic Project, two organizations that help immigrants who relocate to the region. “One of our goals is to identify the credentials and skills immigrants have that would be of interest to employers,” says Betsy Cohen, St. Louis Mosaic Project’s executive director.
“We’re always looking to make a good fit wherever we can.”
The efforts being made in St. Louis by the St. Louis Mosaic Project, the International Institute and others are having an impact. A study by the George W. Bush Institute listed St. Louis as the nation’s sixth-best metro area for immigrants’ well-being and the third-best for living standards for foreign-born people. The report cited St. Louis’ comprehensive efforts in three areas — being a place of opportunity for everyone, having welcoming policies and having programs in place to help immigrants thrive – as being significant factors in the area’s ability to attract foreign-born residents.
Commerce has similar efforts in place in Kansas City, where it has worked with Della Lamb, a community services organization that helps refugees resettle. Commerce works with Della Lamb to provide financial banking education to refugees and discuss potential employment opportunities.
“We’ve also hosted a fundraiser to assist Della Lamb, with the bank matching team members’ donations,” says Jureau Bowman, community outreach and banking officer at Commerce. “A large number of refugees were arriving in Kansas City, and we felt it was important to do what we could to support the efforts to help them integrate into the country.” She notes that the fundraiser, combined with donations from leadership and the Commerce Bancshares Foundation, raised over $12,500 in just two days.
Bowman says the bank’s support exists to help refugees build a strong financial foundation in their new communities.
“We’re helping them understand how the American banking system works, how to build a budget, how to save money — knowledge that will help them for years to come,” she says.
The people of Commerce believe these programs can support many incoming immigrants in various ways. “My hope is that the programs we’ve established will continue to be relevant for a variety of circumstances,” says Hyland. “For example, refugees from Ukraine or any other country can benefit from the same programs upon their arrival here. I’m hopeful that we can do our part to help any refugees who settle in the markets we serve. Everyone who establishes themselves in one of our communities adds to its culture and economy in a positive way.”
Avery-Morris adds that Commerce is committed to the communities where it does business. “We’re only as successful as our communities are,” she says. “This effort is just one example of our commitment to helping all our communities be vibrant. It’s beneficial for everyone — the refugees, our customers and our communities.”
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