The Syrian Refugees Escaped War, Only to Land in One of St. Louis' Toughest Neighborhoods

Iman Alkrad is the matriarch of one of a handful of Syrian refugee families still living in a run-down apartment complex in north St. Louis.
Iman Alkrad is the matriarch of one of a handful of Syrian refugee families still living in a run-down apartment complex in north St. Louis. SARA BANNOURA

At the dinner to benefit Syrian refugees, there aren't enough seats for the Syrians. The room at the Boo Cat Club is packed, and Jessica Bueler is flitting around, managing the event, making sure the crowd of mostly white St. Louis women is enjoying the food. A young Syrian boy stops her and quietly asks where he's allowed to sit.

"Anywhere," Bueler says, smiling, continuing on.

The boy walks back to where his family of five is standing pinned against the side wall of the event, and whispers something to his dad. His dad looks as if he were told to sit in every seat at the same time. Bueler catches this and zips over, leading the family to a central table where she asks spread-out diners to scooch together.

This is Bueler's thirteenth Supper Club dinner, in which she invites St. Louisans to pay $25 for the chance to eat home-cooked Syrian food and meet a few of the 68 Syrian refugee families that have been resettled in St. Louis since 2014. Six of them cooked this evening, and all the night's proceeds will go to them.

In 2016, Bueler founded the grassroots organization Welcome Neighbor STL after she was horrified by an RFT story detailing the beating of teenage Syrians in north city, and she's been rallying St. Louisans to provide support for refugees ever since. Playing the role of pep-rally leader, she uses loud and ESL-friendly language to introduce the audience to the evening's cooks, who announce what they've cooked — shawarma, kibbeh, fattoush, tabouleh, hummus — and stand awkwardly for the accolades. The thrum of applause thermals into a frenzy when Alifa Alahmad steps forward and says the word "baklava."

Iman Alkrad, far left, with her sons Abdal and Mohammed and husband Ammar. - SARA BANNOURA
Iman Alkrad, far left, with her sons Abdal and Mohammed and husband Ammar.

Three of the Syrian cooks live in the Garden Apartments near Hodiamont and Page, about a mile north of Delmar. The block, which adjoins Amherst Park, features the splintered and rotted bones of old homes and a too-wide street paved with more traffic in mind. This is the neighborhood where some Syrian teens were beaten in 2016, drawing Bueler's attention. A dozen or so refugee families have left the area already. The ones who remain haven't had the choice.

No fewer than eleven Syrians greet me in a living room with tea, kibbeh with olive oil and za'atar, olives, makdous, labneh and Arabic coffee set on a tablecloth on the floor.

Apparently still shocked by the violence they've witnessed in north city, the group ticks off a list of what they've experienced collectively at the Garden Apartments in the last two years: the beating of their teenagers, a holdup at gunpoint, two cars smashed in by baseball bats, a chilling attempted kidnapping of one of their daughters, a rock thrown through their living-room window, kids hit with baseball bats, a stolen bicycle, a man creeping around with a stocking mask on (two weeks ago), men breaking into their living room wielding a Taser (one week ago). The wives stay awake until their husbands get home, sometimes as late as 2 a.m. They've called 911 so many times that dispatch provided them with a special number to call.

Then there are the living conditions themselves. A roach crawls across the floor. Iman Alkrad, one of the Supper Club cooks, casually picks it up with a paper towel and kills it. Soon after, I spot another across the room, on the wall. Later, they show me a five-inch-by-ten-inch sticky trap plastered with fully 1,000 insects. They inform me that this trap is today's. As in only today's. Happily, winter put a break on the bed bug infestation that had attacked their children's legs. "When I leave, I'll only take our clothes and some kitchen tools," Iman Alkrad says.

"Everything else is going to waste," her husband Ammar says. "The roaches are inside the furniture."

The Alkrads show off a single day’s roach collection. - SARA BANNOURA
The Alkrads show off a single day’s roach collection.

With an invisible grace, Alahmad and Najlaa Alsaadi take my dishes, sweep away the dinner crumbs, and clean the apartment before I even notice.

Some have suggested that the Syrians' problem in north city is cultural. In 2016, Jeffrey Boyd, the alderman for this ward, suggested to KMOX that perhaps if the Syrians didn't eat their meals on the floor, they might not have an insect infestation. The same week, KSDK's Jason Aubry wrote, "A number of those (cockroach and field mice) problems can be associated with the refugee [sic] themselves not knowing or understanding how things work here in the Midwest, surrounded by an abundance of bugs and animals foreign to them."

Mohammad Rehman, whose company manages the Garden Apartments, suggests that the bed bug and roach problems were caused by bringing in outside mattresses and furniture, and claims that the problem was resolved a year ago. He says he is unaware of the roaches' continued presence. "We have an office in the apartments," he says. "If they have a problem, they have to come over and tell us. That's why we're sitting over here."

Others might suggest the problem is capitalist. Our system incentivizes landlords to take advantage of renters with, say, no English proficiency, few-to-no community ties and nowhere else to go — and therefore no ability to complain. The families blame the insect infestation on their landlord neglecting to cut the grass, and they claim he one day tried to resolve a mold issue by painting over it. (Rehman says this is not true.) Boyd himself disclosed — transparently, at least — in the 2016 KMOX interview that the Garden Apartments manager once contributed to his campaign. Jessica Bueler, for her part, maintains that Boyd has offered her no more than lip service about helping the Syrians. Boyd did not respond to an interview request.

"Conflict is normal between people," Abu Osama, who lives at the Garden Apartments, says. "We've been through trouble back home, but people figure things out. Here, it's so easy for people to pull out a gun. I've seen so many people pull guns out flippantly. I've seen someone shoot someone in the leg just down the street. I've seen someone get shot at a gas station just a couple weeks ago."

"We left death and came to another death," the Alkrads' son Mohammad says.

"If we knew this is what it was going to be like, we would've stayed in Jordan," Iman Alkrad says.

"We're not asking to live in Clayton," Ammar Alkrad interposes, already keenly aware of the places a St. Louisan might aspire to. "Just a better place, something better than this." Despite their frustrated comments, the Alkrads clarify that they’re grateful to be in St. Louis, where they have found the people far more welcoming than those they experienced in Jordan. Here they have the chance to make a life, even if it's one starting from Hodiamont.

The Dar Al-Jalal mosque and Welcome Neighbor STL have worked to relocate Syrians from Garden Apartments to other parts of the city and county. The mosque paid to help with families' leases for one year, while Welcome Neighbor STL raised $15,000, providing $1,000 to each moving family to help subsidize the new residences. Only three remain. The money is there, Bueler says; the complication is a matter of rehoming large families with several children. After getting the Syrians out, Bueler says she wants to focus on Somalian families living at the Garden Apartments, who are also facing violence.

Until mounting back rent forced her to shutter in March, Bueler owned HSB Tobacconist on the Loop; her father founded the business in 1972. Although she founded Welcome Neighbor STL long before closing HSB, the vacuum that followed the tobacco store's closure has shifted Welcome Neighbor STL into overdrive, for the Syrians at Hodiamont and beyond. Bueler recently designed curricula for twice-weekly English lessons for eighteen Syrians at Grace United Methodist Church, organizing pickup, dropoff and daycare services for mothers. The Supper Club she founded has also exploded; Welcome Neighbor STL has received so many recent requests that they've had to put a temporary hold on reserving the cooks.

Bueler stepping in with Welcome Neighbor STL has been a lifeline for the families still at Hodiamont. But the situation continues to rankle. What has been discouraging, Ammar says, is that their section of the apartment complex was where all the incidents occurred, and yet they have been the ones who've proven too difficult to rehome quickly. "We've become part of the past tense now," he says. "People and the media have forgotten about us."

Abu Osama, who has five children, fixes on me intently. He has heart problems stemming from the war in Syria. Certificates earned by some of the young children in school hang on the wall, opposite a boarded-up window. Two of the men in the room in their early twenties hadn't been to a single day of class since the Arab Spring began, and are now working full time to support their families.

"We don't want food or water," Osama says. "We just want our kids to be safe and have a good life. That's all we want. Our future is gone. Now we need to take care of them."

Najlaa Alsaadi’s children were - sitting on the couch when someone threw a rock through the window behind them. - SARA BANNOURA
Najlaa Alsaadi’s children weresitting on the couch when someone threw a rock through the window behind them.

Back at the Welcome dinner, the guests are savoring their baklava.Bueler, standing at the head of the room, calls attention and gives thanks to everyone involved, to applause. She announces the next Supper Club event. Then she indicates the woman standing next to her, Iman Alkrad.

"Iman would like to share a story with you all. Iman, do you want to talk about your first day in St. Louis?"

Alkrad speaks haltingly, to accommodate a translator. "It was a bad day," she says. "I was crying. (Translation.) I traveled a long distance. (Translation.) It's been seven years since I've seen my daughters. (Translation.) I felt scared. (Translation.) And after I met people here and Jessica came to visit me at home with the group, with Susan, they became like my family, like sisters. (Translation.) They helped us, thank Allah."

In the pauses during translations, Alkrad returns to Daraa, on the southern tip of Syria. She fled in February 2013 with blankets and kitchen tools, her home demolished, leaving one daughter behind. It was two years after the outbreak of Syrian unrest, 700 days of bloodshed. One day, during Eid al-Adha ("Feast of Sacrifice"), an explosion shook the city. A car bomb had gone off outside a restaurant where children were playing. Blood and flesh flew everywhere. Children and women screamed. Iman's kids had only just left the area to come home.

Another time, Alkrad's 21-year-old nephew's house was shelled. His one-month-old daughter survived with a broken leg. They found the mother in pieces in the bathroom. The father's head exploded on the living room carpet.

Alkrad fled with her family to the Jordanian desert, where they lived for two months in a tent camp. The tents were candle-lit and would sometimes catch fire, burning up their inhabitants. Because there was no security in the camp, rape was common; someone always kept watch through the night.

It was there they learned that Iman's mother-in-law, trapped in a basement in Syria, had suffocated from the fumes of a gas bomb. Eventually Alkrad's family smuggled themselves out on a bus and got onto a list for UN refugee resettlement, from which Alkrad and her husband were sent to St. Louis.

"I wish I could hold my daughter," Alkrad says. "I don't know if I'll see her again. I don't know if I'll see my brothers. Only Allah knows. Inshallah [God willing]."

Alifa Alahmad, who is standing next to Alkrad at the dinner and preparing to speak, suddenly finds herself back in Aleppo, site of the brutal four-year Battle of Aleppo between the Syrian military and opposition forces. No one left their shelled homes; snipers hiding in the ruins fixed on anything that moved. A pregnant woman in labor finally ventured outside, holding a white rag as a sign of peace, desperately looking for a place to give birth. They shot her.

click to enlarge Jessica Bueler, center left, works with Alifa Alahmed, Iman Alkrad and Najlaa Alsaadi to plan an upcoming Supper Club event. - SARA BANNOURA
Jessica Bueler, center left, works with Alifa Alahmed, Iman Alkrad and Najlaa Alsaadi to plan an upcoming Supper Club event.

Alderman Boyd, in a separate 2016 interview with KMOV, argues that violence terrorizes his whole ward, not just the Syrians living in it. It's a fair point. Many have lived their entire lives amid violence. The question becomes a nebulous one, one of quantifying St. Louis' complicated violence: Do the Syrians, who did not grow up in this community, deserve to leapfrog black residents, who have suffered centuries of racial and economic discrimination, into a safe neighborhood?

And yet in Syria, at least these families were thrust into a chaos for which they had context. Here in north St. Louis they are not only scared but culturally lost. For those born here, the world expands at the rate at which we speak to others, unfolding their worlds into our own. For a refugee who doesn't know the language, the world is fixed to the size of how many other Syrian refugees are around them. At Hodiamont, the world has shrunk to three families big.

It's not the poverty or the bed bugs' bite that overwhelms. It's the unfilled promise of peace, the anxiety of red memories that never leave, and the new alien fear that every brushed hair, itch, tic or any other minute sensation is a bed bug or roach that eventually overwhelms.

Najlaa Alsaadi, another of the Supper Club cooks, speaking of Syria, later tells me: "It never escapes us, never escapes our mind. I was just on the phone with my mother yesterday. She said she wishes she can hold me, and I started crying, and she started crying. Even after we hung up, she called me again five minutes later, just to tell me to stop crying."

The Supper Club event is winding down. Those Americans who came with friends are leaving; those who managed to introduce themselves to Syrians are still chatting excitedly with them. At the end of one table, next to the plundered remnants of food trays, Maysaa Telmesani speaks into a cell phone, waiting for Google Translate to perform its charms. She then passes it to the woman across her, who looks at the English and laughs.

"This is the thing that's empowering them to take the next step, to talk to people, to give them the confidence to use English, and to actually make money," Bueler says. Supper Clubs serve all of these ends.

click to enlarge Chairs sit outside a broken window at the Garden Apartments. - SARA BANNOURA
Chairs sit outside a broken window at the Garden Apartments.

Telmesani, a Syrian teacher, arrived in the U.S. four hours before Trump's Muslim ban took effect. A week later, Telmesani receives the chance to teach again for one hour at Mallinckrodt Academy, a south-city school for the gifted. In front of a crowd of bored, relatively affluent young children, Telmesani shows the children a slideshow photo of her once- upon-a-time Syrian students. Then she wrings from her nascent English vocabulary the story of Daraa, where the Syrian revolution began on March 6, 2011.

"Some students — I think that they were at the same age as you — in Daraa," she says, "wrote some words in the street. The statement... The meaning of the statement in English was, 'Dr. Bashar, your return is coming.'

"An officer in Daraa — he was the cousin of the president — he took these students who wrote these statements and took them to a place. We can say it was a prison. They force fear on them and killed them and take their [finger]nails from their places. He took their nails."

Schoolchildren seldom give public speakers serious attention, especially if the speaker is an adult with a thick accent. Yet several of the students here gasp, locked onto Telmesani. One young girl gapes for the rest of the hour, horrified. Telmesani goes on to describe how Syrian officials broke her father's skull. One of the teachers raises her eyebrows and glances at the students, concerned yet ultimately unwilling to stop this grown woman tearing up in front of children she's met this week.

There's a fantasy that refugees, once they arrive, start life anew. But of course they don't. They continue living, and every time gunshots ring out in north city, a family member, a friend or a pregnant woman holding a white flag dies again, and the past keeps knocking on the door of the future.

Since the Supper Club event at the Boo Cat Club, Alifa Alahmad and her family have relocated from the Garden Apartments to a home in Crestwood. Three families remain, including Iman and Ammar Alkrad's, waiting for the war to end.

Quotations from Arabic were translated by photographer Sara Bannoura.

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