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- PHOTO BY HOLLY RAVAZZOLO
- Muhudin Gamut-Socoro recently quit his job as manager of House of Goods to earn more for his family. But he continues to volunteer.
Gamut-Socoro came to St. Louis in 1996, fleeing the civil war that devastated Somalia in the '90s. His father was a political activist who'd visited the United Nations in New York in the 1950s. When a general staged a coup in Somalia in 1969, he went into exile in Uganda. Returning to Somalia a decade later after the Ugandan government was toppled, Gamut-Socoro's father was placed on house arrest and stripped of his passport. He never returned to politics but found success in business instead.
Gamut-Socoro was seventeen when he arrived in the U.S., among the first Somalis to come here as refugees. His family came on a Boeing 747 with around 500 refugees in total, he says.
"We thought all of were going to be in one state, something like that," he says. "When they landed us in New York [at] JFK, they separated us into different groups. I think they gave us color groups. Either blue, red, green, and we didn't know what the color group [meant]. We came to find out they were taking us to different states. Some family ended up in Minneapolis, Ohio, San Diego and other states. We were so confused at the time."
Although the majority of his extended family was split up between cities and states, officials kept Gamut-Socoro's immediate family together, placing them in St. Louis. The International Institute sponsored his family — one of only seven or eight Somali clans in St. Louis at the time — during those first few months.
Few Muslims lived in St. Louis then, and few organizations outside of the International Institute existed to help them.
"When we came, we didn't have the House of Goods," Gamut-Socoro says. "I wish there was something like that at the time we came because I was lost." His family, though educated, didn't know how to walk him through the next steps of adulthood in a completely new culture. "Nobody was there to guide us," he says. "Nobody told us, 'You need to go to college. You only graduated from high school.' Or, 'Let's find you a way to the best opportunity.'"
Gamut-Socoro worked multiple jobs to support his parents and siblings, trying to carve out something for himself, too, along the way. His father's health was too poor to work, and his mother was torn between staying at home to care for him or going to work and putting her husband in a care home — something that isn't done in Somali culture.
He started working at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, eventually getting promoted to the central office, where he worked with a "bunch of nuns," he recalls. They called him "little Mo."
"I was the only black guy working with the Caucasian women," he says, laughing. "They were treating me like their own kid. Honestly. They loved me so much, so they were bugging me more about school, and I had to change my life. Nobody did that." The nuns helped him enroll at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, where he began taking computer courses before enrolling at New Horizons St. Louis, where he added business to his studies. Nine years after starting his job at St. Vincent de Paul, he began working in the hospitality industry, where he finds himself once again.
Thinking of his years as a young man, he turns solemn: "It kind of hurts me, because I wasted a lot of years in my life before I end up going to college."
Maybe, he thinks, this work with House of Goods is the reason he's here. "I myself believe there was a purpose in my life, that's why I am doing it and what brought me to that situation," he says. "Because before House of Goods opened, I never thought about it. I was hired for something else: I was working as a funeral apprentice."
The outreach is critical. Many of the Somalis who Gamut-Socoro came over with, he says, have ended up in trouble — drugs, alcohol or crime. "Because nobody was there to guide them," he says.
Like Gamut-Socoro, when the first Bosnians arrived in St. Louis, free storehouses like House of Goods didn't exist: Beyond the basics provided by the International Institute, refugees sometimes found themselves looking in alleyways for discarded furniture, says Grozdanic.
Today, they remember what it's like to go three or four months without couches or the things that make a house a home. Now many Bosnians dedicate their time and resources to helping the new waves of refugees coming through. Three months ago, Imdad says, a Bosnian guy donated a whole palette of frozen salmon.
"The Bosnian community helps House of Goods a lot — and when I stress 'a lot,' it's because they were coming from war-torn countries and they know how it feels to come to the U.S. and not have anything," says Grozdanic.
And the refugee families that have arrived recently enough to benefit from House of Goods are already giving back — those who live close enough by or have transportation to get there, that is. "Syrian refugees see what they came from and what they didn't have and now what they have, and now they share it with the other Syrians," Grozdanic says.
Word has caught on within — and outside of — the St. Louis refugee community. Seven months ago, Detroit's police department sent two palettes of noodles and non-perishable food. Non-food donations, especially those not covered by standard government assistance, like baby clothes, washers and dryers, and cutlery — are welcomed as well.
They rely on the community not only to find new families to help, but to find leads for specific items. Social media plays a huge role. Whenever they've posted a request for a lead, they've procured the item within 24 hours, Grozdanic says — every time. "We all come together to try to figure out when someone's in need of something, we always try to find it," she says.
One donation that's especially useful is halal meat, which is slaughtered in a certain ritual. "They don't sell that in everyday grocery stores," Grozdanic says.
Grozdanic's phone is almost constantly buzzing as she dashes between the homes of those who are resettling. When refugees first get to St. Louis, usually while they're in the International Institute's program or shortly after it wraps up, she'll do a home visit. She finds out if the family includes children, and if so, their ages and gender. She brings nonperishable food and toys. More often than not, the children are waiting at the windows for her arrival.
As the only employee of the organization who was born in America, Grozdanic occupies a special —and highly valuable role — with Baitulmal. "I'm so proud of having Lisa as a sister because she's actually born in St. Louis, raised in St. Louis, knows a lot of the things that I would be confused," says Gamut-Socoro. Even twenty years after arriving, he says, some aspects of the city are a mystery to him.
But as the only woman employed by House of Goods, Grozdanic's gender is perhaps even more valuable. It's easier for some women, especially those who have been through trauma, to connect with her.
"I cannot go to a woman who's been traumatized from a war," says Gamut-Socoro. "I don't know what she has seen, or what she has been through, and it would be very uncomfortable just speaking to a guy."
The same day she visits the Shaker-Salehs, Grozdanic visits Fairview Manor, an apartment complex on a lightly industrial stretch of Morgan Ford Road. Inside a second-floor apartment, a twelve-year-old girl is bustling about in the kitchen as her nine-year-old sister stays close by. The apartment is jarringly dark compared to the bright sunlight outdoors.
Their mother, Farhiya Hassan Ali, is paralyzed from a 2011 accident. She sits on one of the International Institute's black chairs in the living room. The family came from a refugee camp in Kenya, where they lived for seven years before being placed in this apartment by the International Institute. It also provided the family with beds, a card table and chairs, and kitchen supplies — the building blocks for a new life.
With limited funds per refugee, the Alis wound up in a neighborhood where, Grozdanic says, Ali's children weren't safe to play outside.
Once their three months with the Institute began to draw to a close, Grozdanic began searching for a new apartment in a good neighborhood, trying in vain to find a unit on the ground level. At least this one had been newly redone, and the neighborhood seemed much better to Ali.
"Now I feel good, and I feel very safe," she says. In their former neighborhood, she adds, "I feel very alarmed."
At the time of Grozdanic's visit, they have lived in this apartment for two weeks. The twelve-year-old does the cooking and cleaning. She put up the curtains that are fastened over the apartment's windows all by herself. Their colors and patterns give the apartment warmth, but without a rod, the panels can't be swept aside to let in light.
Grozdanic visits this family often. Her closeness with Ali and her children is evident in their familiar tones as they talk.
"I am thankful for them, they help me a lot... every day calling me, asking me whatever I need," Ali says. All of the furniture in the room — the two comfortable sofas, the tables and the TV, and even the cable box that Time Warner workers later come in to install — comes from Baitulmal. The family's bills are being paid by the Islamic Foundation via donors until Ali's disability allotment from social security begins to come in. For now, Ali has been approved for food stamps and a cash benefit — the latter of which will be cut off when social security checks begin arriving.
She recalls the privations of the refugee camp. "They asked me, 'Mama, even I want something like this,' and I don't have money to give them," she says. "But now ... I can give everything because now I give to my kids a lot of toys. I give them everything they need ... I'm happy to stay here and to get everything to give my kids. Even I feel good, the kids are happy, and I feel good for that."
It's also the other things, the how-tos of life in a strange country — especially one where the language isn't your own — that Grozdanic helps Ali with: how to pay bills and rent, how to sort out which mail is junk and what's actually important. Today, there's a question over how to pay the gas and electric bills that arrived while Grozdanic was in Florida.
"With her, it's more of a special case; normally I wouldn't go this far out of my way," says Grozdanic. "When you walk in, and you see a twelve-year-old girl standing on a chair, trying to make food for her family — I mean, it does something to you."
Tomorrow is the first day of school for Ali's daughters, who don't yet speak English. They have brand-new backpacks, two of 77 that were donated to Baitulmal and filled with supplies. So far, their only interaction with other children has been during Ramadan, when the Islamic Foundation provided transport to the local masjid, and at the Koran class they attend there.
A bus will pick them up tomorrow morning to take them to their new school, the Nahed Chapman New American Academy off Grand. Most of the city's other refugee children are enrolled there as well.
While they're at school, Ali wants to look into beginning English lessons. Her English, learned from American movies and television, is already very good, though she hesitates with long sentences. She's nervous she'll say the wrong thing.
With new families, Grozdanic frequently warns them how quickly their three months with the International Institute is going to go. "My suggestion to all of the families that I meet is that you don't waste time," she says. "The time is going to fly by, and you're going to be on your own, and you're going to have to pay for everything."
She also listens to the needs they have, from clothing to furniture to toys. Children are still children, after all — refugees or not.
"Making the children happy, that's what does it for me," she explains later.
Bijedic regularly posts on his Facebook page about his experiences going to visit and connecting with refugee families — he met the first Syrian refugee to arrive in St. Louis last September.
"In law enforcement chaplaincy you see all kinds of things happening in the streets, but every night you pass each street there is a story of people that live in these neighborhoods," he posted last October. "I found out just saying hi or how are you to the people that live in different neighborhoods makes a huge difference them.
"Today before going to work I visit an Iraqi family of six that [has] been in STL for almost a week; as soon I came at the door kids were jumping from happiness because I was carrying boxes of different items such as clothing, food items and other stuff that people donated. After that they started following me to my car and said thank you so many times."