Photo by Danny Wicentowski
Syrian refugees say they want to leave north city. (This photo has been edited to blur the address.)
On Thursday, a St. Louis metro police SUV could be seen idling in the parking lot of an apartment complex off Hodiamont Avenue in north city. Police officers are an uncommon sight here, says Kaswar, a Syrian refugee cradling an infant in her arms.
A married mother of three, Kaswar escaped the carnage in Syria five months ago, and her family is now one of a dozen refugee families living in this apartment complex in the West End neighborhood of north city, about a mile north of the Delmar Loop. As the police SUV drives off, a group of adults gather in the parking lot to discuss their situation. They speak in animated Arabic, gesturing angrily at their surroundings.
They're not talking about roaches or plumbing problems, although they've experienced both. It's violence that worries them.
On Tuesday, police say four young Syrian refugees were attacked on the 1100 block of Hodiamont, just blocks from their apartment complex. According to an incident report, the victims were approached around 7 p.m. by four unknown suspects, who indicated that they wanted to fight. The teenage refugees — none older than fifteen — were punched and kicked. One was later taken to a hospital to treat a leg injury.
Speaking through a translator, Kaswar (who asked to be identified only by her first name) tells RFT
that the International Institute — which sponsors the refugees through the federal program that gives them aid and resettles them in the U.S. — provided little warning about the conditions of the neighborhood before moving in. The refugees were told, "It's a normal place, lower than middle-class but it wasn't bad."
But after her first week, Kaswar and others noticed that they were being watched by a group of young men. Bicycles started going missing, followed by car parts from the four vehicles shared by the refugee families. Gunshots erupted throughout the night.
"They felt like they were still in Syria again," says Eman Saffaf, an intern with the St. Louis chapter of CAIR, the Council on American–Islamic Relations. Saffaf points to a white-haired man puffing on a cigarette, the father one of the teens injured on Tuesday.
"They feel very targeted," Saffaf says, translating. "They keep saying, ‘They’re just attacking us.'"
A police spokeswoman says that investigators re-interviewed the victims on Wednesday and with the help of the interpreter obtained a description of the suspects, said to be Hispanic and black males in their late teens.
Tuesday's attack has only added to the refugees' sense of unease about their new lives in St. Louis. Late last month, KMOX's Charlie Brennan helped one refugee family get an exterminator
for an infestation of roaches and ants. Ward 22 Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, in a subsequent interview with the radio station, suggested the refugees could be attracting the pests
by keeping their doors open or placing food on the floor.
Faizan Syed, the director of CAIR-St. Louis, tells RFT
that local religious organizations are attempting to find ways of moving the refugee families to north county, closer to the large Muslim community there. But it's unclear how — and when — that move might occur.
At the same time, it's worth remembering that the north city neighborhoods around Hodiamont are home to thousands of residents who struggle with poor public transit, lack of jobs and the threat of crime. The gunshots scare them, too
But for a refugee like Yasser Sakroujeh, a former barber in Syria who now works on a hotel cleaning crew, the lack of safety has shaken what little stability he'd hoped to find here. Sakroujeh's frustration is tangible.
"I would rather stay in a war-torn country," he says through Saffaf's translation. "At least I know everyone there."
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com