The crisis in Syria is on everyone’s minds right now—whether for humanitarian concerns, worries over ISIS or Russian involvement. Here at home, several groups have made the call to accept more Syrian refugees to the St. Louis region. So far, 29 have arrived since the beginning of this year.
But what about Syrians who have already come to St. Louis? What is their life like here? And how have they settled into local society and culture? On Thursday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” two Syrians who came to St. Louis under different circumstances shared their stories of becoming part of the community and how they juggle their relationship with their birth country.
“I reached a point where I go and keep myself away from the media somehow,” said Alaa Alderie, one of the founders of Cham Bakery, the region’s first local pita shop. “It’s so disturbing where you can watch and can’t do anything.”
Settling into American life, starting social enterprise
Alderie came to St. Louis in 2012 on a visitor visa. His brother had moved here in 2010. Both his mother and father came with him on a journey that went through Lebanon, to Jordan and to the U.S. He applied for asylum and in 2013 it was granted. Soon thereafter he started three businesses: a local restaurant, Layla, which he later sold, a boutique in the Delmar Loop, and Cham Bakery, which has business growing steadily through partnerships with local restaurants and grocery stores.
“When I started this business, even Americans liked it,” said Alderie who mentioned that Middle Eastern restaurants in the area were some of the first to promote it. “I was shocked. I thought my target was only the Arab community or others like Bosnians or Greeks, but I’m selling to Americans more than both. I have local grocery stores, stuff like Dierbergs, buy my bread even better than Arabic grocery stores.”
Jimmy Alkhouri came to St. Louis from Damascus in 1998 to pursue higher education, alongside his brothers and sister, and said St. Louis was a good fit for him because it is a “small-big city.” He began studying at St. Louis Community College-Meramec , and later transferred to Washington University. He now works in IT at Edward Jones and continues to run the St. Louis social media force he founded, STL Social Group, which combines meet-ups and Twitter chats to help connect St. Louisans interested in social media, helping non-profits and promoting the city.
“We started small,” Alkhouri said. “At the first meeting, only three people joined me. I wasn’t discouraged. Now, we have meetings of 50,60 people at a time. We’re welcoming to everyone, regardless of where they’re from, who they are. We just want people to come together and learn from each other. We focus on business people, professionals who are interested in learning about social media. We want to give back.”
Alkhouri is now an American citizen and is involved in the Syrian-American community in St. Louis, attending church at St. Raymond Maronite Cathedral in downtown St. Louis. He says that though it is hard to put a distinct number on the number of Syrians in St. Louis, there are many who immigrated here all the way back to the 1920s.
“I’ll never forget where I came from,” Alkhouri said. “We have a strong heritage but I feel now, when you ask ‘Where are you from?’ my answer is St. Louis. I’ve lived over half my life here.”
Remembering troubles back home
Although the transition to American life has been relatively easy, one of the hardest parts of being in the United States is emotionally taxing contact with family members who are still in Syria and suffering.
“There are different areas in Syria, there are different issues,” said Alderie, who used to be the head of sales for a local bank in Damascus. “If you find basic needs for safety, you won’t find basic needs for electricity, gas, these type of things. This is more complicated when you go outside, where you go to the bombings. I have two families—some of them live in safe place, some of them live in not a safe place. Both are suffering, each one has one problem. They’re trying to go out. A few of them left the country and went to Germany some to Turkey, the rest are trying to escape.”
Some members of Alkhouri’s family still reside in Syria as well. “We need to have peace,” he said. “The civil war is not good for anyone. Lebanon had a civil war for 15 years and nothing changed except a lot people died. I do think that we, as a country, need to accept more refugees.”
Alderie said he and his immediate family had reached that level of need for escape when they came here in 2012. “We reached the level like where you cannot stand,” said Alderie. “Obviously, it is not going to be ending very soon in Syria. The future has been almost stopped for us. My previous job almost could not figure out what to do with employees, there was no future. The safety is a huge issue there. We had to leave.”
"There’s no good coming to the country,” said Alderie. “For the Syrian people, they have been screaming about this for like four years and they’re not getting any help from outside until they put themselves on the boat and 50/50 [have a]chance to be alive or not.”
Welcoming refugees to St. Louis
Both Alderie and Alkhouri said they hope more Syrian refugees come to St. Louis, and they are preparing to make their transition easier.
“We would like to welcome everyone here without picking sides from the conflict back home,” said Alkhouri. “I’m confident they will have the second chance opportunity to build business and build their life.”
Alderie gives a lot of credit to the city of St. Louis and organizations like the International Institute for helping his transition here and making it easy to get Cham Bakery off the ground. “My goal is to pay back the city welcoming me and having me here and allowing me to start a business, I have to,” he said, mentioning that he has reached out to the International Institute and other Arabs in the region, asking them to give any new Syrians in the area his number to call in need.
“I’ll find them a place, I’ll help with the business, I know some people now that need to hire, I will do my best,” said Alderie. He had previously mentioned that it had been a little harder for his own parents, who do not speak the language, to acclimate to the U.S. “They’re kind of alone. They don’t have friends or family but us, me and my brother, and that’s the only thing that sometimes breaks my heart.”
Recognizing fears over refugee resettlement
Both Alderie and Alkhouri recognize American fears about welcoming extremists who may be posing as refugees.
“There must be oversight if some bad element infiltrated this refugee population,” said Alkhouri.
“Having said that, there are clear-cut cases. We don’t need 24 months to check if a five-year-old is a bad element or not. There are many humanitarian cases that we can take and are sure they’re not involved in any bad deed back there. I agree there should be oversight, there already is an extensive check but we don’t want to stop us doing the right thing and helping in the humanitarian crisis.”
Alderie went through that background check during his application for asylum. “I’ve been there,” he said. “I’ve been through the process step-by-step. They’re very careful to choose the people here. I feel there are so many cases that should be helped.”
Although he hasn’t felt xenophobic backlash locally, Alkhouri does understand it is out there. “I believe people are afraid of what they don’t know,” he said. “Once they get to know us, they get to know the community, they get to know the hardworking people, the family-oriented people…they would love them and welcome them more.”
Hopes for the future
Both men said they hope that refugees who come to the United States set aside the issues that brought them to St. Louis in the first place, as both Alderie and Alkhouri have done.
“I hope that newcomers would leave that behind and try to start a new life here,” said Alkhouri. “We want to come together and have a peaceful country over there and community here working together to help each other. Start a new life, a new way.”
“Even the Islamic extremists in Syria are not Syrians,” Alderie added.
"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.