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