When you become a refugee, you don't get a moving truck. Instead you gather the few things you can carry. You leave your house, your town and your country, and you depart from those places you hold in your heart with more nothing than something.
There are steps and stops along the way, but when you arrive at your final destination, the south side of St. Louis, the International Institute helps you begin to acquire the building blocks of a life interrupted and then begun again: an apartment, the English language, a card table with hard black chairs.
The International Institute's program lasts about three months. During that time, you begin to find community: others who are or who have very recently been in your position, who might even be from your country. Many share Islam as a common bond, and word of new arrivals gets back to the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis — and in turn, to a woman named Lisa Grozdanic.
Grozdanic works as a task manager for the Islamic Foundation's social services division. She spends much of her time focusing on its House of Goods program, which assists refugees who have passed that three-month mark with the International Institute and are no longer eligible for its continued support.
The concept of House of Goods — or Baitulmal, to use the Arabic — is simple: Give donated items away for free to those in need. It can mean food, baby clothes, furniture, toys, shoes. The recipients don't have to be refugees or Islamic, although they often are.
Grozdanic started working with Baitulmal through her son, who volunteered back when donations were still stored in a room in the West Pine Masjid. Soon after the foundation moved the items into a Tower Grove South warehouse in late 2015, she went to pick him up from a Saturday shift.
"Donations were all the way from one end of the building to the next, and all the way to the ceiling, and only two people were in there sorting through clothes," she says. "When I walked in seeing how much donations they had and how [few] people, I couldn't go home knowing all that stuff was there."
Grozdanic stayed that night until 7 or 8 p.m. and returned the next morning for another all-day organization spree. From there, she says "it basically became my full-time job."
She had good reason for wanting to help. The child of a mother from Austria and a father from the Philippines, Grozdanic grew up in south city. In high school, she met her husband, who came from Bosnia. He'd arrived in St. Louis after living in a concentration camp for nine and a half months. "When he was ten years old, his family had everything in their home," she says. "They went to bed one night, and they woke up the next morning, and they lost everything."
Now, the organization has just undergone its third move in a year: from mosque to small warehouse, and now from the small warehouse to a space almost twice the size. They're aiming to reopen in their new digs by mid-October, so long as leaders can get the zoning permit they need from City Hall.