Muslim Refugees in St. Louis Bring New Flavor

St. Louis is one of those last few American cities that is a black-white city. The city has a slight black-majority and the white population is something like 47%. Of the top 43 metropolitan areas in America St. Louis ranks 40th in terms of Hispanic population leaving St. Louis a racially polarized city along with similar places such as Baltimore and Cincinnati (two cities with striking similarities to Da Lou).

While St. Louis is still a black-white city it is not as much the case as it was 15 years ago when almost everyone you would meet here was black or white. There is a small but growing Hispanic population; but more so than that there is a large and growing refugee population here. It started with the Bosnians in the early 90’s (St. Louis has the biggest Bosnian population in the nation) but has went on o include Somalis, Iraqis, Afghans, Burmese Muslims, West African Muslims, Kosovar Muslims, and others. The immigrant Muslim population of the city is mostly refugee and that is why the community in St. Louis is undeveloped and lacking, most of the community is recent and poor. The other Muslims in the city are either at African-American masajid on the North Side far from refugees, at the Salafi Masjid, or a part of the affluent immigrant (mostly Desi) Muslim population in the suburbs.

A recent article in the New York Times highlights the story of Vedad Ibisevic. Ibisevic is a professional soccer player in the German Bundesliga. Like tens of thousands of other Bosnian Muslim refugees from the war that broke apart the former Yugoslavia Ibisevic stayed in Germany for a brief time before coming to live in South St. Louis. Along with smoke houses, coffee shops and mosques Bosnians brought a rebirth of soccer to Roosevelt High School. The soccer program had been dead at Roosevelt (which by the time the Bosnians got there this once white working-class school was overwhelmingly African-American and in America, percentage-wise, blacks are less interested in soccer than any other group).   The piece outlines how Ibisevic made his way from Roosevelt to playing professional soccer in Germany and how he is a hero of sorts to the local Bosnian population here.

It is ironic that not too long after I read that article I got in my cab and picked up a family of one woman and three children heading to Children’s Hospital. They lived in a South Side apartment building I knew to be home to refugees and I mistakenly thought they were Vietnamese because they had an Asian look. After the family got in my cab one little boy, who I guess was about 5, said “we are Muslim” just out of the blue. I smiled and said I am Muslim to and gave them the greeting “Assalaum alaikum” and all four of them returned it. It turns out I was wrong they were not from Vietnam, rather they were a family from Burma. We went on to have a brief conversation and the boy told me he had two names, a Burmese name and a Muslim name. When I tried to get their feelings on the junta that rules Burma and their thoughts on the plight of Muslims there I could not make a connection. I do not know if it was a language issue or an issue of them just not wanting to talk about politics.

Many nativists in St. Louis resent the presence of refugees here; but overall the community has been welcoming of them. Their presence has breathed life into some dying areas of the city and slowly but surely these communities are opening their own stores and mosques to service their communities.

This is a remarkable feat given the fact that there are widespread reports of law-enforcement intimidation of Muslim refugees in St. Louis.  People are not told to not go to the masjid; but they are shown pictures of fellow Muslims and asked if they know them and asked if they go to such and such a mosque. The message is clear; stay away from the Muslim community and do not practice your religion and you will be fine. If you practice your religion and are an active member of the community we will profile you, harass you and make your path to citizenship difficult if not impossible. Yet, despite all of these obstacles, and the racist nature of St. Louis anyway, Muslim refugees have found a home here and are moving forward (albeit clumsily). St. Louis may be one of the least vibrant and dead Muslim communities in America today; but these refugees could give birth to a vibrant Muslim community 20 years from now ( I doubt it, but Allah knows best).


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