After the lunch rush Thursday, Sai Tai's father-in-law watched a soccer game on the television behind the bar at Tiger Chef restaurant as his 9-year-old son played on his phone while his 7-year-old daughter wandered around the restaurant.
Sai Tai and his wife, Nang Lont, opened Tiger Chef on April 4. They are refugees from Myanmar, also called Burma, arriving in Columbia, Mo., in 2011. Nang Lont's mother also is in Columbia with them. Two members of another Burmese refugee family also work at the restaurant, which serves Thai and Burmese dishes, including chicken or pork satay, Tom Yum soup and Tiger Fried Noodle.
Their son was born in Malaysia, but their daughter was born in the U.S. after their arrival.
"They sent us here," Sai Tai said of the refugee aid agencies that brought his family to Columbia.
"We like it here, so we don't move anywhere," he said.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson last week in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agreed to allow Missouri to continue to allow refugees to resettle in the state. The Boone County Commission followed that action on Thursday when it voted to continue accepting refugees locally.
A Trump administration executive order signed in September required states and local to designate if they choose to accept refugees or not.
"In Missouri, state organizations and faith-based groups work tirelessly to support refugee resettlement," Parson's letter reads in part. "Currently, there are five agencies that integrate refugees in St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia and Springfield where they have helped strengthen local economies, especially through entrepreneurship. These groups do an excellent job of transitioning newly settled populations, ensuring they are educated, trained and prepared to assimilate into their new community."
Parson was harshly criticized for his decision on social media by some conservatives and Republicans, with some saying they wouldn't vote for him because of the decision and another inaccurately describing refugees as illegal immigrants. Refugees enter the country legally and are vetted by the U.S. State Department. He defended his decision at an appearance in Moberly last Thursday, saying he wasn't concerned about the criticism.
Sai Tai said appreciates the governor's decision.
"It's good," he said.
The family's initial help came from Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri Refugee and Immigration Services, including setting the family up in an apartment.
The agency tweeted its appreciation for Parson's decision to allow refugees in Missouri.
"We are incredibly excited and grateful" for the governor's decision, said Lorna Tran, agency director.
Tiger Chef is one of the many refugee success stories she has heard in her 39 years with the agency, she said.
"It's just phenomenal really how the refugees have integrated into our community," Tran said.
"We wholeheartedly agree" with Parson about the contributions refugees make to our community and society, Tran said.
The decision to open a restaurant came after friends and coworkers suggested it to them several times, he said.
"My wife, she cooks very good at home," he said. "She also cooks food for small parties for my coworkers."
Word of the restaurant is starting to spread, and it's beginning to make a small contribution to the local economy, he said.
"We just start slow," he said. "Now a lot of people are getting to know us."
A U.S. State Department database shows the number of refugees settling in Columbia declined by a little more than 30 percent from 125 in 2018 to 86 in 2019. The majority of refugees both years was from the Democratic Republic of Congo: 96 in 2018 and 67 in 2019. Three Syrian refugees settled in Columbia in 2019, and none in 2018.
Statewide, 598 refugees settled in Missouri in 2019, 101 more than in 2018.
Catholic Charities has different numbers for Columbia. Tran has said previously that she thinks the State Department numbers include refugees with Special Immigrant Visas who worked for the U.S. government in their home countries, placing them in danger there.
Catholic Charities resettled 92 refugees in Columbia in 2019, down from 137 in 2018, Tran said. Its estimate for 2020 is between 80 and 85.
Another not-for-profit group assisting Columbia's refugees is City of Refuge. It provides help for refugees in reading mail and bills, provides rides to appointments, clothes donations, driving lessons, professional development, trauma counseling and other services.
It provided Sai Tai and Nang Lont with some marketing training.
Garrett Pearson, executive director for City of Refuge, said the governor's letter was welcome.
"We're very encouraged," Pearson said. "The community response helps us to support the refugees in resettlement. We're very thrilled."
Some refugees who don't settle directly in Columbia also come to Columbia after learning about the city's welcoming atmosphere, Pearson said.
"Some come here on the advice of family members or friends," Pearson said. "The cost of living in Columbia is low. Columbia is a welcoming place for refugees."