Sabir is due home from her first day as a cashier at Target. In fact
she's late. The rest of the family is mildly embarrassed because
guests are waiting, but there's nothing they can do about it.
Zohra's brother, Shakib, speaks only broken English; her mother
can't speak the language at all, except for a single word suddenly
popular among Afghan refugee families, "Bush." It's one more wrinkle
in the day's fabric that Dayna O'Brien of Kirkwood Road Christian
Church can easily smooth. She makes a quick call on her cell phone
and tells everyone Zohra should be walking in the door any minute.
And when Zohra does - a 21-year-old with long dark hair and the
schoolgirlish enthusiasm an American would lose at an earlier age -
the conversation erupts, because Zohra speaks English almost
fluently, not to say gushingly. For her and her family, moving to
St. Louis "was wonderful," she says, "especially when I find Dayna.
It is her humanity, and it is her church's humanity, that has
helped us. When we came to America, we don t have anything." Dayna
bows her head, ducking gratitude like a soldier ducks incoming fire.
"All these things you see," Shakib chips in, "she bring for us."
He's talking about the second-hand but solid sofa and chairs, the
lamps, the television playing softly at the other end of the living
room - most of them donated by families from Dayna's congregation.
The mugs of orange juice on the coffee table read "Alpha Phi Omega
Winter Formal 2000." A complete set is spread out for everyone in
the room, but none of the Sabirs are drinking because it's before
sunset and we're in Ramadan.
Meanwhile Zohra has moved on to a new subject and is raving about
Target - such a magnificent store, so clean and wonderful. Experts
say refugee families go through four stages in adjusting to their
new homes: euphoria, hostility, recovery and integration into the
new culture. The Sabirs arrived in August, and they're still
comfortably in the first phase.
Earlier that morning, in the foyer of her simple church on
Kirkwood Road, Dayna and her friend Amy O'Brien were explaining that
"this is where it all started." On a bulletin board were snapshots
of three of the four families the congregation has helped, donated
to, become entangled with since March - two of them Afghan,
one Bosnian, one Somali - along with biographies and needs lists and
an urgent appeal for each: "This Family Needs Your Help!"
Dayna has a big shy smile and a cloud of curly blond hair that
sometimes hides the sincerity in her eyes. "The Bible says that
whoever s kind to the needy honors God," she says, tapping the pages
of an open New Testament as she speaks. "The reason we're doing this
is, we want to share the love of Jesus Christ with people."
In the beginning the "we" was just Dayna. She had been looking
for a way her congregation could help needy St. Louisans when the
United Way passed her the name of a refugee family. She followed it
to the International Institute, the local agency responsible for
resettling refugees, where Beth Radtke suggested she could have a
greater impact on a family than she might think by providing a few
basic household items. Beth passed on a list of suggestions. It was
just what Dayna was looking for, because "even the people that don't
have a lot of money can give something - I mean, look at this list:
kitchen knives, pots and pans...." So she consulted with her pastor
and then told the congregation one Sunday, "We're going to start
adopting families." The first people Beth assigned them were the
Ugaraks, from Bosnia.
Beth Radtke may look like the actress Helen Hunt, but she sounds
like a dead ringer for Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck, one of those
Frank Capra heroines who's grown a sarcastic veneer to protect her
basic warmth. She says many Americans think refugees are coddled
upon arrival, taking jobs away from Americans, receiving welfare,
getting huge amounts of money. In truth these families have
typically spent years in transit camps before finding a permanent
home (the Sabirs, for example, fled Afghanistan in 1993). When a
country like the United States does grant them refuge, the
International Organization for Migration lends them airfare
expecting to be paid back. Washington assigns them to a resettlement
agency and pays it a one-time lump sum of $590 per person to take
care of their resettlement.
In the International Institute's case, half that money goes to
paying for social workers and the other half to paying for the
nuts-and-bolts things that every family needs. Beth ticks off the
list: Rent. Utilities. Furniture. "You can't buy couches new, and
even bedframes cost 140 bucks. And it's not just purchasing the
couch, but having the labor to lift it. It takes a truck, and a
truck takes gas." By the time the money's gone there's no more than
an extremely basic home to show for it.
State aid (here in Missouri, up to $342 a month for a family of
four, expiring after eight months) keeps the family going until the
parents and children can find work, and amazingly enough, more than
90 percent of the refugee families achieve a rough economic
independence within four months of setting down. "Once you get to
know them," Beth says, "they're just great, resilient people." But
there's plenty of room for what an American might regard as a small
gift to make a huge difference to them.
When Dayna's church started helping families, she thought the
pots and pans would be the main part of it. Her congregation would
drop off some furniture, shake hands and set off on its way. "At
first," she says, "I didn't know what I was doing." Soon it became
clear there could be much more involved, if she and her friends in
the congregation were open to letting it happen.
Amy started to get involved with the second family the church
adopted, the Mohammads. The parents were signing the children up for
school; the forms they had to complete were confusing even for an
American who spoke English, which they could not. Amy did the work
for them. "When I came home I told my husband this is the most
fulfilling thing I've ever done." Dayna and Amy took the family
shopping. Once, they took the oldest kids to Six Flags. "They
thought they were in Fairyland or something," Dayna says. They rode
the rollercoasters, ate cotton candy, stopped at McDonald's. "It was
so cool to be able to see it all through their eyes."
There are nearly 50,000 refugees in the St. Louis area. The
International Institute's overtaxed social workers must take care of
100 to 120 of the most vulnerable, each - wholesale aid where the
families need retail. Volunteers like Dayna are welcome,
particularly if they plan on helping several families in turn, and
Beth can justify the time to nurture and advise them because it will
pay off manyfold. For people who are curious, culturally sensitive
and have a basic love of people, it's a perfect thing to do.
"The refugees are so grateful for human contact," Beth says, "and
the church people respond to that, because they want to be needed.
It's the same reason I have this job. I guess that's the beauty of
Resettlement agency for
refugees in the St. Louis area. The institute provides English
classes and takes care of refugees' material needs in the early
period after their arrival. Houses of worship and other
organizations that wish to help a series of refugee families may
contact Beth Radtke at extension 117 to learn
Address: 3654 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, Mo.