On Aug. 3, 2017, a gathering of engaged St. Louis community members and FOCUS alumni attended a discussion on “Religion and the Immigrant Experience” at CIC in the Cortex complex. This was the first in a series of four Civics & Civility Forums that will be hosted by FOCUS St. Louis and sponsored by the Missouri Humanities Council over the next year.
Providing insights on the overlap of religion and the immigrant experience on were the following panelists:
- Dr. Anna Crosslin, long-time head of the International Institute whose leadership has helped establish so many of our foreign born St. Louisians in their new lives;
- Imam Djilali Kacem of the Dar-Al Jalal Islamic Center, much of whose congregation are finding their feet in their new home of St. Louis as Muslims;
- Dr. Ben Moore of Fontbonne University, whose work with the Bosnian Memory Project delved into the decades long process of assimilation; and
- Geoffrey Soyiantet, whose organization Vitendo4Africa is a home-away-from home for African immigrants in the Hazelwood area and beyond.
The conversation made clear what a crucial role a community of faith can play in making the immigrant or refugee experience successful, or more difficult. As Dr. Crosslin pointed out “a refugee’s first 10 years in a new community are really just about survival.” Imam Kacem added that survival for immigrants may mean becoming a “jack-of-all-trades” and driving cab, or tending the counter, while they do the hard work of opening doors to re-establish themselves in their chosen field, as doctors, veterinarians, programmers etc. Furthermore, communities of faith can often be instrumental in networking immigrants and refugees to find that first temporary job, and their eventual career. Dr. Moore described how a community of faith can define immigrants’ and refugees’ new lives “over here” as opposed to their old lives “over there.” Geoffrey Soyiantet added stories of his success in reaching immigrants and connecting them to services by contacting them through their communities of faith.