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House of Goods Helps St. Louis Refugees Make a New Home, One Item at a Time

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Adil Imdad. - PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
  • PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
  • Adil Imdad.

Adil Imdad started the Islamic Foundation's social services program in 1997, coming off a master's degree in environmental engineering at Washington University (he'd moved from Pakistan for the opportunity). Bosnians were just beginning to arrive in St. Louis, fleeing the war in Yugoslavia — a country that Imdad hadn't even realized included predominantly Muslim areas like Kosovo and Bosnia. "When they started coming into the city through International Institute, that's what gave me a chance to connect with them," says Imdad, now the chairman of social services for the Islamic Foundation.

Imdad and his friends began to organize, arranging to help with payment for refugees' utilities, rent, small medical bills and medication. Around the city, five medical and dental clinics run by the Muslim community were opened to refugees at no cost. Two doctors assisted with psychological services — and anti-depressants for those who'd arrived traumatized.

Imdad took inspiration from a story in the Qur'an about Mohammed, who almost fifteen centuries ago opened the first house of goods in Medina. It was a room or small warehouse where those who were more well-off would keep food and oils and slaughter animals for those who couldn't otherwise afford it. "He was a man of great charity — he would keep very, very little for himself," Imdad says.

Dzemal Bijedic, the state's first Muslim police chaplain, spurred what would be House of Goods' first wave of donations with a Facebook post late last summer, he says. He meets refugees through his work with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, interacting with families and learning about their needs.

When the donations came in — and kept coming in — Baitulmal opened an independent location in November 2015: a warehouse, formerly an old motorcycle shop, in Tower Grove South.

The mission broadened.

"When the House of Goods started, they were helping refugees, and my theory was to help anybody, not refugees," says Muhidin Gamut-Socoro, who until recently was the manager at House of Goods. "I didn't focus on all Syrian refugees or Somali refugees or ethnic refugees — no. Refugees and anybody who's living in the poverty in America, because we do have people living in the poverty situation and they need help. Why should we restrain to give them any? When you have it, you should just give it for free to those that don't have it."

The goal is to "help out humanity," Imdad says. "That includes any religion on this earth. We have never said no to anybody. The preference is for refugees, but if you're needy, come on in. We'll help you out."

Still, the people being served remain predominantly refugees. They hear about Baitulmal by word of mouth, through shared classes at the International Institute or through the community surrounding the Islam Foundation. Grozdanic also finds new families through the institute — those who have given permission for their contact information to be given out — but "mainly we find them on our own or they find us," she says.

Those who aren't refugees come to House of Goods mostly through organizations they're partnered with, including Gateway Corrections. "They bring their clients to us so we can help them reestablish their life," she says.

Almost everyone involved with Baitulmal has a lot going on in their lives outside the organization. Bijedic works 3 to 11 p.m. as a chaplain. Imdad is a chaplain too, for the county police department. In 2014, he started the first Muslim funeral home in the state to provide free funerals for families who could not otherwise afford them (they pay only the cost of the grave site). Grozdanic, whose sister also volunteers with the organization, has a two-and-a-half year old with a heart condition. Gamut-Socoro's wife is going to school, so he's responsible for providing for their two children as well as his 86-year-old mother. In late August, he left his position at House of Goods, cutting his hours with the organization to a once-a-week volunteer basis to make room for a new job as a front office clerk at a hotel that would better support his family.

But they can't stand back when a huge community needs their help.

On one visit in May, the warehouse could best be described as teeming, with the space — around 2,000 square feet, according to Bijedic — packed with people and donations. Given the resources of the organization and the volume at which goods were arriving and being sorted on the sales floor, triage seemed to be the order of the day.

The action isn't only at the warehouse. Volunteers and employees gather donations from around town. They'll also pick up people who need to make a "shopping trip," and, after they select items at Baitulmal, drop them off at their homes. Many new refugees don't drive, after all.

"We have expanded a lot now that we're becoming very well known in the community — not just in the Muslim community but the whole community," Grozdanic says. "With all the new refugees coming, we're always busy; we're constantly on the go; the phones are always ringing ... thank God we're receiving so many donations; it's amazing."

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