THE TERRORS AND TENSIONS LIVE ON REFUGEES FACE WRENCHING CHANGES IN FAMILY LIFE AND WORK STATUS Series: AN INVISIBLE POPULATION Second in an Occasional Series

By Philip Dine Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 25, 1995 | Go to article overview

THE TERRORS AND TENSIONS LIVE ON REFUGEES FACE WRENCHING CHANGES IN FAMILY LIFE AND WORK STATUS Series: AN INVISIBLE POPULATION Second in an Occasional Series


Philip Dine Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The dance in the church basement in south St. Louis was called to help unify the local Romanian population, and a couple of dozen are spending their Saturday evening here.

Yet amid the shouted greetings and the raised glasses of murfatlar wine flows a strong countercurrent.

Dumitru Popovici, a 37-year-old from the Transylvanian city of Hunedoara, quietly wonders about his fellow guests. Who among them works for Securitate, the Romanian secret police? He glances around, then adds that those who left after the 1989 revolution deposed the Communists came here not for freedom but for an easier life, and so their character is not to be admired.

Such rifts and suspicions have kept most Romanians away from St. Thomas Orthodox Church this night.

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed more than five years ago, but his handiwork flourishes in south St. Louis. The sense of isolation and the distrust he instilled in his citizens are as central to this party on Nottingham Avenue as are the Romanian melodies.

Though it might seem that refugees have crossed their major hurdles by reaching St. Louis and starting a new life, the effects of war or persecution, famine or totalitarianism do not vanish at the border. And a jarring transition here often creates new problems.

The personal battles of the St. Louis area's 15,000 refugees are being waged all around, though often in ways scarcely visible:

. A fifth-grader from Bosnia struggles to shut out images of the men who took her father away late one night and wonders why she survived.

. The self-worth of a once-proud Ethiopian educator, now parking cars at a hotel, ebbs day after day as people treat him dismissively.

Such problems hit refugees far harder than immigrants, who have deliberately chosen to come here, usually for a specific job. Refugees typically have fled for their lives and are sent here with few resources or prospects.

St. Louis is rapidly becoming a center for refugees. The State Department and national resettlement agencies have quietly made this a "cluster site," meaning they are funneling refugees here at a high rate.

The city, for instance, ranks second nationwide in the number of Bosnians arriving 530 in the past year and a half, trailing only Chicago. Bosnians, reeling from war and detention camps, are considered the most traumatized of all current refugees.

Officials in the State Department's Office of Refugee Resettlement say St. Louis is a focal point for refugees because of the competence of the three local resettlement agencies, a strong record of job placement and the lack of saturation by other immigrants, which limits public animosity.

Missouri ranked third last year, behind only New York and Texas, in "free" cases from all nations. That term covers refugees who can be sent to any state, while those rejoining families go where the relatives already live.

Human Side Is Overlooked

Warren Bonta is state refugee health coordinator for California, which accepts roughly one-quarter of the nation's refugees. He calls personal traumas and family strains "the No. 1 unmet need."

Bonta, chairman of the national refugee health coordinators network, says he has the funding and mandate to deal effectively with other refugee concerns but is "nearly at a total loss with mental health issues."

The problems refugees face can be divided into three categories:

. Individual, as people cope with traumatic situations they endured back home or suddenly face a plunge in stature here.

. Family, as those already rendered fragile try to cope with a new society or as traditional values meet modern ones.

. Group, with suspicions and envy keeping countrymen apart, at a time when they could help one another adjust.

Immigrants encounter problems that are far less urgent, from language barriers to blending old and new cultures for their children. …

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