Syrians in St. Louis

For the Guardian, I wrote about the movement to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in St Louis:

“Syria, Syria, you’re not alone! Call St Louis your new home!”

On 13 September, hundreds of St Louis-area residents converged in a parking lot in the suburb of University City to demand that the US government raise the cap on the number of Syrian refugees allowed in the country – and settle at least 60,000 of them in St Louis.

The rally, which included speeches from religious leaders, Muslim activists and Syrians, culminated in a march through a University City’s business district, where the streets echoed with a recurrent cry: “Bring them here! Bring them here!”

“One of the things that makes this march so amazing is that this march is for Syrians, but not by Syrians,” said Faizan Syed, the organizer of the march. “It’s done by people of all different races, backgrounds and religions. All of them are coming together because they are witnessing the image of tragedy overseas. And when they witness that, they want to make sure they can do something about it.”

St Louis currently boasts a very small number of Syrian refugees. Since February 2015, St Louis’s International Institute, a refugee resettlement service, has sponsored 29 Syrians and says that approximately 20 more are expected in the coming months. Activists in St Louis are hoping this will change, and soon.

The outpouring of support for Syrian resettlement has come not only from St Louis’s Arab and Muslim communities, but from residents all over the area – a mass humanitarian initiative in a region known for violence and racial strife.

“I’ve had people ask: ‘If you’re not Syrian, why are you doing this march?’” says Syed, who is Pakistani American. “And I think that says a lot about the world we live in today. It is completely normal for someone from another ethnicity or background to hate you because they’re different than you. But when people love you because you are different, then people question that. This movement is something all of St Louis should be proud of.”

I also wrote an op-ed for Quartz about the discrepancy between the outpouring of support for Syrian refugees and the apathy shown toward St. Louis’s long-suffering impoverished black communities:

Drive further down Delmar Boulevard, and a different crisis becomes visible. This is the site of St. Louis’s “Delmar Divide“—separating rich from poor, and white from black. The area on the poor side of the divide is full of abandoned homes with no windows or roofs and people with no money or jobs. This is where St. Louis’s entrenched black underclass lives, in desperate conditions that have demanded attention—but received little—for decades. Drive further into the city and you will find the New Life Evangelistic Center, a homeless shelter deemed a “nuisance” by city officials, which may face closure. As St. Louis citizens vow to help Syrian refugees, many of their own neighbors remain without shelter and struggle to survive.

Yet these conditions are not considered a crisis. In St. Louis, they’re life.

The question is not whether St. Louis should help Syrian refugees or help its current residents. The question is how it can best help both, and why such a discrepancy exists between the compassion and generosity shown toward Syrian refugees and the continued neglect of St. Louis’s impoverished black communities, many of which have struggled to survive in this region for decades.

Read the full-oped, Why does St. Louis care more about Syrian refugees than its black population? at Quartz.

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