Djuma Dunia lives in south St. Louis, thousands of miles from his homeland of Congo. But his house here is becoming more of a home, thanks to the generosity of a group of teens and other volunteers who are helping resettle Dunia and his family.
On a recent afternoon, Dunia joined several volunteers with St. Louis Teens Aid Refugees Today (START) and Welcome Neighbor STL to pick up a bedroom set from a recently married couple who were graduating from college and moving. Dunia, who lives here with his parents and seven siblings, expressed gratitude for the donation. He works at a 7-Eleven six days a week, where he is improving his command of the English language.
Teen volunteers with START offer fundraising, moving assistance and tutoring, specifically to the refugee community. It is a program of Welcome Neighbor STL, a grassroots community support group for refugees and immigrants in St. Louis. The group matches volunteers with families, assists with English tutoring, helps families move from substandard housing, provides household items to those who need them and more.
Luke Braby and Adam Saleh created START in 2018 while they were students at Saint Louis Priory School. The two came up with the idea after Saleh met a Syrian refugee at his mosque in Ellisville. The man was selling baklava on the steps of the mosque to provide money to support his family.
“I didn’t speak Arabic, so my dad talked to him and found out he was a refugee and had an injury,” said Saleh, now a rising sophomore at Ohio State University. “He was living in an apartment with seven other people. That really shocked me; here was someone who was selling (food) to make ends meet.” Saleh knew several Muslim immigrants, but he said this was the first time seeing the issues of refugees up close and personal.
The friends got a booth at the mosque’s bazaar, selling items to raise money for the man and his family. Their first endeavor brought in a few hundred dollars. They expanded to other venues, including cultural festivals and farmer’s markets, eventually helping other refugees. While helping a family with a move, the two met volunteers with Welcome Neighbor STL, and a partnership was formed.
Many of the group’s activities were curtailed in 2020 when the pandemic began, but volunteer opportunities such as tutoring continued virtually. In-person activities are resuming, said Evan Hugge, a rising junior at Priory, who now serves as the group’s president.
Hugge said he’s enjoyed volunteering with the Welcome Neighbor STL Supper Club, in which refugee families make meals from their native countries to be shared together with the community. During COVID, the meals were available for pick-up.
“The refugee cooks would share their stories and experiences in coming to the U.S.,” he said. “It was a powerful thing, to listen to their challenges — the language barriers, housing, getting their driver’s license. I don’t have to think of that kind of thing on a daily basis. I saw through START that I could make a difference. I don’t think I would have known about the (refugee community) otherwise.”
Refugees and START volunteers also have worked together to make and distribute meals to homeless individuals via Street Kitchen, a volunteer-led outreach that provides food, water, blankets and clothing, as well as connections to emergency housing. Refugees make healthy meals, with START volunteers helping to distribute them with Street Kitchen.
Alex Grucza, a rising senior at St. Louis University High School, who volunteers with START, said the opportunities to help others has made an impact on his life. “It’s opened my eyes, seeing other people’s lives and how they’ve not only escaped, but acclimate to the U.S.,” he said. “I see how much happier it makes them.”
>> START and Welcome Neighbor STL
START (St. Louis Teens Aid Refugees Today) was started by Luke Braby and Adam Saleh in 2018 while they were students at Saint Louis Priory School. The group has since expanded to include volunteer teens from 14 high schools in the St. Louis area. Volunteers help with fundraising, providing moving assistance and tutoring. For more information, visit start.welcomeneighborstl.org.
Welcome Neighbor STL was founded by Jessica Bueler, who wanted to help refugee families after reading a news report about attacks on teens from refugee families and the substandard living conditions where they had been resettled. The organization offers emotional and social support primarily by partnering volunteers with new families and providing entrepreneurial opportunities to help them integrate into their communities.
Welcome Neighbor STL seeks volunteers; financial donations to help refugees find safe living conditions in St. Louis; hosts for a Supper Club to build relationships and enjoy international cuisine while supporting local refugees; and donations of household, toiletry items and more. For information or to donate, visit www.welcomeneighborstl.com.