Ali Hussein is a Syrian refugee living in St. Louis with his wife and six of his children. He has been here for nearly 4 months and he already has a job and a car. His transition to American society has not been easy, but he has been successful.
He fled his Syrian home in Homs, the third largest city in the war torn country. There, he was a tailor. Here in St. Louis, he continues to ply his trade. It was pretty easy for him to get a job because his skills do not require a tremendous amount of English proficiency to perform.
Ali’s apartment, just off Hodiamont Avenue, is near other Syrian refugees. They cluster together partly to provide them cultural and communication support, and partly because there are not many places in St. Louis to rent a four-bedroom apartment; something needed when your family is this large.
There are 12 Syrian refugee families living in the same apartment complex, and they are tight knit. When we arrived, Ali’s wife was entertaining nearly half a dozen other wives and daughters, discussing her recent visit to the hospital.
Ali graciously invited our cameras and St. Louis City Alderman for the 22nd Ward Jeffrey Boyd into his home.
We removed our shoes, and he served tea, cookies and chocolates. His hospitality is a hallmark of his culture. And we talked about what was going on at the apartment complex.
The vinyl floors of Ali’s home are covered with colorful rugs; his furniture is simple. He and his family came to America with little, but they have truly made this place their home. The kitchen is clean, food stored away, and the garbage tucked neatly away, though missing a lid.
While we sat in his living room, after our cameras were put away, Ali’s wife joined us. She and Ali spoke about living at the apartment and the problems they were experiencing. In essence, they are dealing with a climate and animal life unlike what they had previously been exposed to.
What seemed to vex Ali’s wife most was a number of fruit flies they couldn’t seem to be rid of. She mentioned most of the apartments had them. Ali mentioned, some of his neighbors had problems with cockroaches and mice, but he said this was a problem for homes outside of the complex as well.
While we talked, their front door stood open, a breeze blowing fresh air in. You could hear Syrian children playing outside. Bees and other flying insects would dart in and out of the home through the open doorway.
Then Ali asked what he could use to get rid of the bugs that entered his home. It was not a question of how, rather it was a question of what product to use. He did not know what product to buy, let alone the English words to use to do it at the store.
It was in that moment I realized just how difficult this transition is for Ali and his family. They are 6,333 miles from their former home and everything they knew. They can’t go to the store to grab a can of Raid, because they don’t know what Raid is or how it works.
Some of his neighbors have other things they are unknowledgeable about, especially when it comes to waste.
Uncovered trash cans, or garbage that has been left too long without being removed, or behaviors that would be acceptable in their home country due to their culture and environment have led to pests becoming a problem for a few.
We heard stories about some having cockroach and field mice problems. A number of those problems can be associated with the refugee themselves not knowing or understanding how things work here in the Midwest, surrounded by an abundance of bugs and animals foreign to them.
It seems pointless to attempt to lay blame for this on any one person when so many things are taken for granted here. Even I, a transplant from Michigan, had never encountered some of the insects and bugs that have attempted to gain access to my home since I moved here over a year ago.
After thanking Ali and his wife for their gracious hospitality, we took our leave of them and bumped into the apartment complex’s owners; two brothers from Pakistan trying to help the best they can. The two men work seven days a week on site, attending to the complex.
They pointed out all of their buildings have new windows, new roofs, and many are getting new gutters. When asked why they did not have screens for their windows, they explained that they ordered the wrong size, showing us an example of one that only covered three-quarters of the window effectively making it useless as flying insects only needed to fly in the opening at the top and down the window to get inside the home. But it was something.
Most of the screens have been sent back, and the brothers are awaiting the correct size of screens to arrive so they can install them. When asked about the dozens of children playing outside around the apartments, and in the parking lots, they admitted it has been a bit of a problem and safety issue.
Some tenants have complained their vehicles are being scratched by rocks, broken bottle tops, and the errant bicycle handle bar. In some cases, the scratches are several feet long. They feel the supervision of the children could be better and don’t understand why the children don’t play in the park across the street.
The playground and the apartment complex is just a few blocks from the Academy neighborhood, where shootings have been up 250 percent this year to date over last year as of September, according to statistics from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Refugee families, especially those coming from war-torn parts of the country where violence can and has taken family members lives haven’t warmed up to the idea of going to the park when they hear gunshots at night.
Still, some of the older kids, the teenagers, make use of the soccer field from time to time.
Other Syrians have been coming to help, as well. While we were there, Dr. Khal Elzoobi, a pediatrician from Illinois who has been here for decades, and another recent refugee, Dr. Shakar Helawani, were visiting the families to see how they can help.
Dr. Helawani lived in the same city as Ali. He fled Homs for Egypt four years ago and only came to the U.S. six months ago. Unlike Ali, the tailor, Dr. Helawani has not yet found work, despite being much further along than Ali with his English speaking abilities.
In Syria, Dr. Helawani was a dentist with his own practice for 20 years. He can’t find work as a dentist here though. Because his family is much smaller, Helawani doesn’t live in the same apartment complex as Ali; which caters to the needs of large refugee families.
Still, both men are incredibly thankful for all the government has done to help them provide a safe place for them to raise their children. When refugees are placed, the government provides them with some money to get them on their feet. The money is split between the hosting organization that is helping them with their cases, in this instance the International Institute, and paying for the things they need.
This summer the International Institute was typically given a week heads up that refugees were coming.
Finding an affordable, appropriate dwelling in that short timeframe was one of the hurdles they had to overcome.
The landlords at the apartment complex explained how the International Institute furnishes the four-bedroom apartments for the refugees. They would purchase bed frames, mattresses, bed sheets, tables, chairs, silverware, dishware, glassware; everything the family would need the moment they walked into the apartment, including some food in the fridge.
The money the federal government gives is supposed to cover three months of rent and utilities, which the International Institute sets up. According to the landlords, they have not had any issues with refugees having their power shut off. They had one issue where a utility worker shut the gas off to the wrong apartment one time, and that was resolved with a few phone calls in a few hours according to the landlords.
Some of the refugees are eligible for cash assistance from the state of Missouri. A family of four gets $388/month, enough to cover utilities and a little food. They also get access to SNAP to help them purchase food.
The most difficult thing for many of the refugees is finding work. Language barriers are one thing, but many of them cannot get a driver’s license let alone purchase a car. Once again, Ali is lucky. He is able to drive three of his neighbors to work and help them out.
Ultimately, these refugees are like a lot of us who have been here for generations; just struggling to get by.
They have the same problems anyone else would have, including children who seem unintentionally determined to find ways to get into trouble.
And while gunfire can be a common nighttime sound, at least they have found a place where rockets and mortars and bombs are not exploding. They have traded those dangers for our brand of first-world-problems plaguing renters all over the country, like bed bugs, and other pests.