How Welcome Neighbor STL Is Helping Refugees Find Their Place In St. Louis
The organization that has now raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for refugees in the St. Louis area, and helped connect them with the community along the way, started with a news story.
Jessica Bueler, a social media marketing expert, was horrified in 2016 by a story she read in the Riverfront Times detailing how teenage Syrian refugees living in north St. Louis had recently been attacked by a group of locals. She realized the Syrians, who’d recently fled the war there, were living just about a mile from the Loop, where she worked.
“I was reading this paper and thinking about what other people are reading this right now and going, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible that this group of teenage boys were attacked and sent to the hospital.’ And then I pictured everybody else around St. Louis just turning the page to the next page,” she said. “And for some reason, that image stuck with me all night.”
Determined not to simply turn the page, Bueler called her friend Aboud Alhamid, who owns Ranoush restaurant in the Loop. What did local Syrian refugees need? He said they had many needs, but chief among them was toiletries.
Putting her marketing background to use, Bueler posted on NextDoor, asking for donations. “We were so overwhelmed with donations that it ended up starting, accidentally, an organization,” she recalled on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air.
That organization is Welcome Neighbor STL, which has made a big impact in St. Louis by focusing on helping refugees who have been resettled to the area. The International Institute of St. Louis sponsors the vast majority of refugees in the area, each coming with a federal stipend to cover their essential needs for their first 90 days. But it can be difficult, if not impossible, for newcomers to fully find their footing within that time period.
And that’s where Welcome Neighbor STL comes in. It’s gained attention for its “supper club” dinners, which pay refugees to cook the food of their native countries and share it with St. Louisans who pay $25 a plate to attend. To date, those 142 events have raised $274,609, Bueler said, 90% of which goes to refugees.
Before COVID, those meals were also a great source of education, one in which refugees told their stories to an appreciative audience. Now they operate as drive-thrus, but Bueler said that has its benefits: They can serve vastly more people and raise far more money.
But the organization does much more than that. By pairing newcomers with hand-selected local volunteers, they’re able to do things such as help with English tutoring and figuring out the endlessly complex American health insurance system.
“A lot of times we even have four or five American families that will be partnered with each refugee family,” Bueler said. “And so that creates this amazing support system so that any time that there's questions about insurance or anything about taxes, or just everyday questions that we have that we may take for granted, you have somebody that you can ask.”
For Mawda Altayan, the support has been invaluable. Altayan came to St. Louis from Syria in June 2016 and initially felt overwhelmed. Friends told her to reach out to Bueler.
“I wasn't speaking English words, actually,” Altayan explained. “I tried to use Google Translate to translate some messages for her, and they sent her some messages to ask her to help me to learn English, to learn driving. So she came to my home; she invited friends to my home; she became my close friend.”
The supper clubs actually stemmed from Altayan cooking a dinner at Bueler’s home. One of the guests that night offered to host the next one — and from there, an event series for born.
For Altayan, they were a crucial source of income, and connections. A mother of three (she’s now pregnant with the fourth), she often felt isolated before the Welcome Neighbor events. “It was difficult for me to learn the language because I’m taking care of my kids,” she explained.
Now, Altayan and her husband have opened their own catering business, Damascus Food.
She added, “Through this event, I met American people. I have friends, new friends. I learned the language through it this way. And yeah, it was so fun.”
With more than 1,000 Afghan refugees expected to be resettled in St. Louis in the next year, Welcome Neighbor STL is ready, and so is Bueler. She recently worked to raise money to help the sister of an Afghan refugee previously placed here in 2014. Andisha Shah has since moved to California, but when her sister needed help getting out of Kabul, Bueler sprang into action, raising more than $9,000. With those funds, Shah’s sister has now made it to Pakistan and hopes to reunite with her family in the U.S.
Bueler said she initially set out to raise $7,000, but the St. Louis community quickly exceeded her goals.
“I'm just so happy to hear that she has made it to Pakistan,” she explained during the show, wiping tears from her eyes. “I'm actually just hearing that for the first time right now.”
The situation confronting Afghan refugees remains incredibly difficult. Said Shah: “Some people are saying, ‘Don't worry, everything will be fine.’ I just want them to know that, how can you even say, ‘Don't worry, it will be fine,’ while every day someone is dying? There is war. Every day, lives are in danger.”
Bueler hopes to at least ease the living situations for any Afghans who make it to St. Louis. She’s currently focused on working with the International Institute to find good short-term housing for families relocated here. And after that, Welcome Neighbor STL stands ready to meet them where they’re at — and help them connect with the community, too.
“What brings people together more than food?” Bueler asked. “When you break bread together, you bring people together. And it's such a great catalyst of that, when you bring people around a table that don't even know each other, and you try different food from a different country and start to hear somebody's story, you start to connect with that.
“And you start to peel back the layers of the onion of what different people go through, and you start to find commonalities. And it all just starts by sharing a plate of food together.”
What: Kurdish Drive-Thru Supper Club
Where: STL Foodworks, 408 N. Sarah St.
When: 4:30 p.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 12
What: Syrian Drive-Thru Supper Club
Where: STL Foodworks, 408 N. Sarah St.
When: 4:30 p.m.–6 p.m. Sept. 25
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.