Middle East Studies Program hosts panel on St. Louis refugees

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Middle East Studies Program hosts panel on St. Louis refugees

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St. Louis is the fastest growing city for the foreign-born and the largest city in the network of about 10 cities in the country where the federal government sends refugees to resettle. Hosted by the Middle East Studies Program, a panel of both refugees and the workers and volunteers who serve them shared their experiences.

Amy Wainscott of the political science department first provided a statistical background.

With about 65 million current refugees, half of them are children, but only 23 million fit the technical definition. Only about 1% of the world’s population is classified as refugee. Half of all refugees currently come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Officially, Syrian refugees number five million, but include 10 million, or half the country’s pre-war population, if the displaced are accounted for as well. Afghan refugees number around six million, although many are not registered, while Somalian refugees make up the world’s largest refugee camp in Syria, over 330,000.

An important term defined by Wainscott was that of “non-refoulement,” in which countries agree not to send refugees back to the countries from which they flee.

Speaking from her own personal experience as a Bosnian, Alina Karamehic-Muratovic of the sociology department noted how St. Louis, in fact, hosts the world’s largest Bosnian population outside of Bosnia. Bosnian is actually the second most popular language in St. Louis.

The reason for so many Bosnians being sent to St. Louis is simple: the government. The United States Federal Government determines where the refugees will be sent and the number of them that will be sent to cities within the country. With an already sizeable Bosnian community and community resources such as extensive healthcare facilities, St. Louis sees an unusually high number of acute care cases, as pointed out by Blake Hamilton of the International Institute during the question-and-answer period following the presentation.

Karamehic-Muratovic shared how she likes “that [she] can exit from time to time” the Bosnian immigrant community. She still feels the acculturation stress, transgenerational trauma and cultural homelessness that many others do. Still, most Bosnian refugees in St. Louis are now U.S. citizens.

A current SLU student, Raquel Dominguez, of the anthropology, political sciences, and sociology departments emphasized how the majority of refugees are women and children, populations that are already vulnerable. In fact, 70% of those applying for asylum to the U.S. are unaccompanied minors along the southern border. With school nearly non-existent for so many refugees around the world, they become vulnerable to sex exploitation and slavery. One in four refugees attempts suicide, often lacking the resources to handle traumatic experiences.

Refugee policy begins with the president, as Blake Hamilton shared in his presentation.

Each October, the president sets the quota of refugees that will be resettled in the U.S. Hamilton referred to refugee resettlement as a “diplomatic tool.” The vetting process is extensive, with no fewer than 13 levels of scrutiny after already being verified by the United Nations. This process can take years.

Refugees must also repay the federal government for their plane ticket to the U.S. The first payment must be received within the first six moths of arrival. In addition, refugees must spend the $950 reception-and-placement allowance within the first 90 days of their arrival. This money can only be spent on rent and utilities. Hamilton noted how this amount does not go very far when seeking a four- or five-bedroom apartment for a family of 10.

With limited funds, refugees often are at odds of local occupancy laws in hopes of making ends meet. Hamilton emphasized the need for volunteers within his organization, with St. Louis actually receiving 1,100 refugees last year, with just 650 the year before that. Only 250 of last year’s refugees were Syrian.

Lisa Grozdanic and Dzmal Beudic, both refugees themselves, spoke of their experiences working with House of Goods, an organization run entirely on donations of toys, food, clothing, furniture and hygiene products.

The pair distribute all donations directly to recent refugee families. They described themselves as “social workers, but not social workers,” ready at any moment to assist a refugee in crisis. The St. Louis Police Department contacts the pair to relay helpful hints or to translate when necessary.

When asked for two or three things that the city of St. Louis could do differently to better host and service refugees, Grozdanic was quick to get personal.

“It starts with you. It is individual support that is needed now. Be more welcoming when you see a refugee walking down the street. Help them read their mail.”

Refugees have fears, too, Grozdanic reminded the crowd. From the administrative side, Hamilton emphasized how Maylor Slay and his administration has been helpful in the resettlement of refugees.