When St. Louis police chaplain Dzemal Bijedic met a Syrian refugee family struggling to keep basic necessities in their home, he took to Facebook.
“I'm collecting food items and school supplies for Syrian refugees and Iraqi refugees that live in St. Louis,” Bijedic wrote on Aug. 31. “Food items that are needed most are cooking oil, rice, flour, sugar, pasta, caned goods or Aldi gift certificate.”
Donations poured in, fueled by social media and the region’s tight-knit networks of Bosnians, recent immigrants and regular mosque-goers. Bijedic started to pass along requests for winter clothing, furniture and children’s toys. He posted photos of the families with updates on their new lives in St. Louis, as friends added messages of support in multiple languages.
“The people I talk to, these are families of six who had normal lives. They had to come here because they had no place to go. They didn’t want to leave their country. But if you live in [Syria] you don’t know who’s going to kill you first,” Bijedic said, “Same thing in Bosnia.”
For Bijedic, the cause feels personal. Like tens of thousands of St. Louis residents today, he and his family escaped the Bosnian war and moved to the United States as refugees in the 1990s.
At first, donations were gathered at local mosques and driven to individual homes. Pressed for space, the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis provided funds to rent out an old motorcycle repair shop on the city’s south side.
“There’s a bigger need now because of the war going on in Syria and Iraq, so more refugees are coming. This is the way it is,” said Adil Imdad, who serves as a Muslim police chaplain for west St. Louis County and helps organize social services for the Foundation. He’s assisted refugees since 1995.
More than 35 refugees from Syria have moved to the St. Louis region so far this year, according to State Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. 100 have arrived from neighboring Iraq. Still more have come from Bhutan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Over the weekend, volunteers folded clothes, sorted household goods and unloaded furniture at the new location. Plastic bags filled with donations formed a small mountain against one wall. Organizers settled on a name: Baitul Mal, an Arabic phrase meaning House of Good. Imdad said the response to the effort is like nothing he’s ever seen.
“We didn’t even publicize yet. I have no idea how they’re even finding out. People are bringing kitchen stuff, utensils, mattresses on their own,” Imdad said.
Volunteer Ferid Karanovic moved to St. Louis in 1993 as a refugee. He remembers going to a center organized by a local philanthropist to help Bosnians in the 1990s, and how much it meant.
“We got some furniture out of there, my family,” Karonovic said. “That was really, really helpful.”
Working alongside him, volunteer Lisa Grozdanic said her 10-year-old son asked if she could donate shoes to refugees as his New Year’s present.
“My husband was a refugee. My husband had everything one day, lost everything the next, and came here again with nothing. So it’s very, very important to me,” Grozdanic said.
For many new refugees, settling in to life in the U.S. is not easy. Assistance from the International Institute is limited after a refugee family has lived in the states for more than a few months, and even minimum wage jobs are hard to come by if an applicant speaks limited English.
Though volunteers have been able to drop off donations to families with specific needs, the center is scheduled to officially open as soon as next week. The center was created to assist refugees, but organizers stress that anyone in need will be welcomed there.
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