Volunteers help refugees get a start in U.S.
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 3, 2001)

Zohra 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 codependency."

International Institute
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 more.
Address: 3654 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63118
Web page:

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