Baba ghanoush, tabouli, yebra and — welcome!

Asked to give a review of her meal, Lori Korn gushed in her praise.

The baba ghanoush — a dish of mashed, cooked eggplant — "excellent, very smoky and delicious." The tabouli — parsley, tomato and other ingredients in a cabbage cup — "very, very fresh." And the yebra — meat and rice wrapped in grape leaves — "tender and tasty," said the woman from Boston visiting family in St. Louis.

Caroline Springer, a teacher and co-moderator of the U.N. Women Club at Ursuline Academy, was equally effusive, repeating the word "delicious."

The meal wasn't served at a restaurant but at the Ursuline Academy cafeteria April 22. The Supper Club dinner, arranged through Welcome Neighbor STL, was prepared by new refugee women using family recipes from Syria.

Annie Hilmes, a French teacher at Ursuline and the other U.N. Women Club moderator, said the Supper Club event is a way of welcoming the Syrians into the community and was a natural connection with Ursuline. "Part of our core value as an Ursuline school is peacemaking and a commitment to social justice, which also is a core value of being a Christian," Hilmes said.

Proceeds from the Supper Club event benefit the refugee cooks. The club at Ursuline served as hosts, arranging the space and supplying some of the guests. The dinner also gave the Syrian women an opportunity to share a little about their lives and journeys.

The cooks, with help from Susan Werremeyer of the Welcome Neighbor STL group, stood alongside the serving line and proudly explained the ingredients in the dishes. Some of the guests took photos of the food.

Werremeyer, a 1987 graduate of Ursuline and member of St. Francis Xavier (College Church) Parish in Midtown St. Louis, introduced three of the Syrian women, including Lina Almuallem, a refugee from Damascus, who has lived in the United States almost two years. Almuallem told the group of the progress she's made, the help she's received from Welcome Neighbor STL and the cultural differences. With prompting from Werremeyer, she compared Americans' overly scheduled lifestyles to Syrians' emphasis on relationships.

"We don't have 'busy' in Syria," Almuallem said. "We talk and drink tea and coffee together. Here, you don't have time for that."

Welcome Neighbor STL is 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. The refugee families generally have members who are working at least part-time hours. They are typically two-parent families with several children.

Hilmes learned about Welcome Neighbor STL after joining with a group of other women, including another Ursuline teacher, Lisa Payne, to offer English lessons to Syrian refugees living in St. Louis. They were settled there through the International Institute.

Jessica Bueler founded Welcome Neighbor STL after becoming concerned for their safety and health. The women Hilmes' group taught eventually connected with the services provided by Welcome Neighbor STL and are now more independent, Hilmes said.

At the dinner, U.N. Women Club members were pleased with the food and interaction with the Syrians. Gabby Cadieux, an Ursuline senior, said "events like this help us to come together and be united as different people who at the same time are alike as human beings who grow to love each other as we are."

Victoria Cichelero, a junior at Ursuline, said the event helps her see the beauty in another culture. Cicherlero, who attended with her mom, said "it hits close to my heart when we don't notice other people. It was really nice of them to join us here. I know it probably took them all day to make this food, so it's great that we're all coming together to enjoy a nice meal."

Sophia Hilmes, Annie's daughter and a junior at Ursuline, noted that she visits a Syrian family with her mom while her mom teaches English to them. "I just love this family so much and it makes me passionate to share their culture and help others see how special and unique their culture is," she said.

As a Catholic, she added, "we don't treat people as outcasts. We bring them in and treat them with the respect they deserve," Sophia Hilmes said.

In school, she's learning about human dignity and the right of people to live in peace. "I'm just glad we can come together in a safe environment to be able to share what they have to offer to us," she said.

Werremeyer explained that she was invited to get involved with Welcome Neighbor STL about a year ago and has made friends in the Syrian community. The area where the Syrians were living in St. Louis was just a few blocks away from her home in University City, Werremeyer said, but is plagued with crime and other problems. 

Thanks to new friends, refugee's life is better 

When Lina Almuallem fled war-torn Syria in 2012 with her husband and three children she knew no English, had no friends and didn't know how to drive.

Now she speaks English well, learned to drive and has a job sewing for a costume company. Her family moved from a troubled apartment complex to a well-maintained apartment building in a thriving area of Maplewood.

"When I came to America, everything was hard," said Almuallem. But she met visitors from Welcome Neighbor STL and "everything changed. Many people came and helped, and now they're family," she said.

When Almuallem's husband, Yasser Sakroujeh, was forced to join the Syrian military, they left for the safety of Jordan, where they lived for four years and barely eked out a living in the underground economy. The International Organization for Migration and UNICEF agreed to resettle them in another country. When the U.S. embassy called to tell them they would be accepted into the United States, Sakroujeh, who worked as a barber in Syria, cried with joy. "America!" he remembers shouting, so excited to go to his choice as the best possible country to resettle.

Welcome Neighbor STL wasn't even a concept when Jessica Bueler knocked on the doors of Syrian families, offering toiletries and winter clothing and asking how she could help them. Bueler wanted to help after she came across a news report about attacks on teens from refugee families and the substandard living conditions of the apartment complex on Hodiamont Avenue in St. Louis where they had been resettled.

One of the biggest needs for the families was for someone to read and explain the messages in their mail. By doing so, Bueler learned that some of the children had high levels of lead in their blood and needed treatment.

Volunteers partnered with families, tutoring began, toiletry drives were conducted and the Supper Club concept began.

The concept was an easy one to devise, said Susan Werremeyer, a member of St. Francis Xavier (College Church) Parish in Midtown St. Louis. At every visit to the Syrians, she said, "all the refugees would make something wonderful. They'd always have food ready for the volunteers."

The organization is growing rapidly. The Supper Clubs are conducted in homes, churches and elsewhere as a fundraiser for refugee families.

Welcome Neighbor's twice-week English as a Second Language classes are taught by a volunteer teacher in donated space at Grace United Methodist Church for 18 women. The program, now with about 40 volunteers, provides rides and child care.

With help from funds raised by the organization, most of the Syrian families have moved from the substandard apartments.

Some cultural differences exist with the Muslim refugees, but they've easily worked through those. Women typically aren't entrepreneurial in Syria, so Welcome Neighbor meets with them to discuss the process. "It's just a way of helping our friends feel welcome and to help educate," Bueler said.

Almuallem's English is proficient, and she and her husband, both outgoing and happy individuals, take every opportunity to talk to people. Their children, ages 6, 9 and 11, are thriving. "I have many friends," Almuallem said. 

>> Facts

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, reports that:

• Less than 1 percent of the world's refugees are resettled

• An estimated 8 percent of the refugee population may be in need of resettlement

• The number of refugees resettled worldwide dropped by more than 50 percent in 2017 compared to the previous year

• 34 countries around the world accepted refugees for resettlement in 2017

• Refugees from almost 70 countries of origin were resettled in 2017. The top countries included Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myanmar

• 53,716 refugees were resettled to the United States in Fiscal Year 2017. The top origins were the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq and Syria

• UNHCR's screening measures include detailed biographical and biometric data, which may include iris scans, fingerprints and facial scans for each refugee referred for resettlement. The U.S. government screens the refugee and decides whether to admit them. The process includes eight U.S. government agencies, six separate security databases, five background checks and three in-person interviews. 

A welcome

Welcome Neighbor STL seeks volunteers; financial donations to help Syrian refgees 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.welcomeneighborsstl.com. 

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