Who are the refugees in St. Louis? | St. Louis Public Radio

Who are the refugees in St. Louis?

Dec 15, 2015

When you hear about refugees in St. Louis, you might first think about the Bosnians who moved here in the 1990’s, or maybe even the most recent arrivals from Syria. But every year, about 600 refugees from all over the world are resettled in St. Louis.  

So, who are they? Where are they from? Answering where they come from is easy: in the past few years, Somalia, Burma, Iraq and Bhutan have accounted for a significant portion of the refugees. Scroll down to see a chart of where they come from and where they settle.  

But as for who they are, that's a much tougher question. So, we thought it would be easier to tell you just a few of their stories.

Jagat Acharya, Bhutan

In the late 1980s, when Jagat Acharya was a young man, his grandfather was kidnapped and tortured by state authorities in Bhutan. He said the schools near his hometown of Tshokana had been closed and used as torture centers to enforce the country’s “One Nation, One People” policy, which targeted ethnic minorities.  

Jagat Acharya stands at the offices of Bilingual International Assistant Services, where he works as a program coordinator.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

“He was asked ‘Do you want to leave the country?’ And he said no. When he said no he was then again tortured, so he had to say I’ll leave this country,” Acharya said.

An estimated 100,000 people were displaced during the campaign, many others were killed. Acharya’s family was given three days to leave their home for a refugee camp in Nepal.

“We were staying on the riverside. There were small, small huts — maybe 8 feet by 8 feet. We used to hold the tents at night when the wind was blowing and there was rain,” Acharya said.

Twenty long, challenging years later, Acharya was allowed to resettle in the U.S. in 2010. He now works for Bilingual International Assistant Services, (BIAS), which assists other refugees to learn English and sign up for assistance programs. As president of the Bhutanese Association of St. Louis, Acharya has organized classes for the children of Nepalese-speaking immigrants and refugees to learn the language. Refugees, Acharya said, should be welcomed.

“This is the land of immigrants and refugees,” Acharya said. “They don’t come with any personal properties or anything, but they have many things to contribute.”

Jacqueline Danga, Democratic Republic of the Congo

About 15 years ago, Jacqueline Danga escaped war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her young son. They lived in a refugee camp run by the United Nations in Tanzania for more than a decade.  

Jacqueline Danga, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, stands outside the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma in St. Louis.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Food was scarce, and refugees had to build their own homes out of branches and wood. Outbreaks of malaria and rheumatic fever were common. Danga’s memories are of rations of flour infested with mice, rancid food and peas that had to be boiled all day until they were edible. She kept a small farm behind her house to feed her family.   

“There were ten orphans that stayed with me in my house. I was working in the hospital, and I helped the orphans, all of them. They were in good health because I helped them,” Danga said, speaking in French.  

In July of 2012, Danga and her son arrived in St. Louis to build a new life. Today, she supports her family by working as a home health aide for seniors. She takes English classes and has been able to visit with counselors at the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma. It’s here, she says, that she has finally found peace.

Mohammed Baban, Iraq/Kurdistan

Mohammed Baban grew up in Erbil, a city in the northern part of Iraq that is considered by the Kurdish people to be part of a sovereign state called Kurdistan. In 1991, the Iraqi military killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds during a series of uprisings over the course of a month. Originally a chemist, Baban escaped to a town near the Turkish border, and began working for U.S. Agency for International Development to deliver immunizations. Unable to return to Erbil after the war, Baban and his family moved to the United States as refugees.  

Mohammed Baban, at the offices of Bilingual International Assistant Services in St. Louis.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

“Life was not easy in the beginning, because we had never been away from our family and friends,” Baban said. “But we had no other choice, because if you go back your life’s in danger.”

For years, Baban used his knowledge of Kurdish and Arabic to work as a translator for hospitals in St. Louis. He pursued a master’s degree in international policy, worked briefly as a linguist for the U.S. Army, and returned to Erbil for four years to work for the Ministry of Higher Education, he said.

Today in St. Louis, it’s not easy to be a refugee from an Arab country, Baban said. Three weeks ago, Baban and a group of friends were accosted by a man screaming profanities at them outside their mosque in south St. Louis.

“I’m a person that came here because of fear of persecution, of terror, of everything,” Baban said. “I had an oath, I became a real citizen here. I am ready to do anything for this country. But still, people do not look at me in the eye.”

Highly-publicized comments from presidential candidates, such as proposals to ban Muslim refugees from Syria, are playing directly into terrorists’ hands, Baban said. This is a war of power and politics, not ideology, he said—and he wishes more Americans understood why refugees have fled their homes.

“Muslims are also victims of this. Who are they killing, ISIS in Iraq? Whom they killing? They’re killing Muslims.”


Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.

This story was reported with the Public Insight Network. To add your voice, click HERE