For more than five decades, St. Louis, Missouri has had a powerful history of welcoming immigrants from around the world. According to the International Institute, there are at least 100 immigrant groups and communities active in St. Louis.
This exhibit presents twenty-seven portraits of immigrant women who now live in
St. Louis. Beside the women's portraits are the women's stories, most of them in the women's own words. The show features portraits of women from Burma, Ivory Coast, Bhutan, Nepal, Lebanon, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Slovenia, Togo, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Syria, Egypt, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Guatemala, and Brazil.
St. Louis is lucky to have these women. Just to get to the United States, immigrants must be steadfast, resourceful, and determined, and they bring these positive qualities to the towns and communities where they settle. Women are the heart of the family, and the family is the heart of a community. We present this show to honor these women, and to highlight the benefits they bring.
This show recognizes the struggles and achievements of all immigrants, who work hard and endure much to come to this country, and bring ambition, dedication, and hope to our country when they come here. My goal is that that this project might bring these women and their stories to the attention of the larger community, and create greater understanding and appreciation of the immigrant community in St. Louis and in the world.
I painted all of these portraits from photographs provided by the women and their families and friends. The original portraits are life-size, painted on 24 inch by
30 inch canvases, over the last two years. These portraits will be unveiled at the opening reception of the live presentation of Beauty, Strength, and Courage, which is tentatively scheduled for Monday, March 8, 2021, at the Intersect Arts Center Gallery in St. Louis, Missouri ( https://www.intersectstl.org ).
When the show is finished, each woman will receive her original portrait to keep.
Beauty, Strength, and Courage
Niang, Nem Lek, & Buah Pi
In 2009, Niang and her two daughters, Nem Lek and Buah Pi, immigrated to the United States, seeking religious freedom, better education and economic opportunity.
Leaving behind loved ones and fleeing to Malaysia to avoid the Burmese military police was not easy. However, risking their lives to escape was necessary for them to have better living conditions and educational opportunities for Nem Lek and Buah Pi.
Entering Malaysia undocumented, Niang’s family constantly hid and avoided authorities. While waiting to join the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ resettlement program in Malaysia, Niang had to find harsh, low-paid jobs to pay for housing, meals, and other basic necessities. For their own safety, Nem Lek and Buah Pi had to stay at home. They missed the opportunity to attend school and receive a proper education.
Fortunately, several months after their arrival in Malaysia, Niang’s family was able to join the resettlement program . However, there were many interviews and required documents throughout the process of finding a new place to live. This process was exacerbated because they did not speak English or Malay. After months of waiting, the program randomly selected the country in which Niang’s family would resettle.
Settling in a different country with a different culture and language was not easy. There were many people who helped Niang’s family. However, two individuals, who worked with the Burmese community and the church which Niang’s family attended, helped them. They not only taught Niang's family English, but also helped them to adapt, assimilate, and understand the new culture.
When Niang’s family started this journey, they did not know where they would end up. One thing they knew for sure was that they had to leave Burma to find better living conditions, to find freedom, and to pursue the education and economic opportunities that were stripped away by the military junta.
These were what they sought for and are currently able to receive in the United States. Niang’s family are able to freely express their religion and worship Jesus Christ.
Nem Lek and Buah Pi have had the opportunity to obtain a quality education and are currently first generation college students. Nem Lek is a rising senior at George Washington University, majoring in Biology. She is passionate about serving the community, specifically the Burmese refugee and immigrant community, and promoting research and health equity. After college, Nem Lek hopes to pursue a career in medicine.
Buah Pi is a rising sophomore at Knox College, majoring in Computer Science and Environmental Science. She is passionate about bringing about awareness of climate change and hopes to positively impact the community through serving the community's needs.
in 1992, when Madhavi's mother was pregnant with her, Madhavi's parents fled Bhutan to escape persecution. They took refuge in a camp in Nepal. The camp had no electricity or running water.
It was the only home Madhavi knew for the next 17 years. When Madhavi was 15, the camp was ravaged by fire, and she and her family had to live in the forest for six months, with only a plastic tarp for shelter.
Madhavi arrived in St. Louis in 2009. She became involved in New City Fellowship, There, she learned about Friends of Refugees and Immigrants, F.O.R.A.I., where she began training with the jewelry team.
Now Madhavi works part-time as F.O.R.A.I.'s assistant sales manager, packing online orders and checking new products. Through her training at F.O.R.A.I., Madhavi's English has improved, and she is learning computer and administrative skills.
Madhavi enjoys being part of a team. Learning new things builds her confidence, and she now feels that she can someday realize her dream of becoming a nurse or a pharmacist.
We did not know where we were going to end up when we started our journey from Syria. We fled Syria by foot and walked across the border to Jordan. We lived in Jordan for five years. I had my fourth child while we were there.
The United Nations told us to come to St. Louis, Missouri.
We arrived in St. Louis in April of 2017. We came to America so that my children could have a better education and the doctors here could help my husband.
When we arrived in St. Louis, the International Institute found an apartment for us, but it turned out to be on the second floor, and there were too many steps for my husband to climb.
Also, at that time we did not know anyone, so we were lonely. However, volunteers from Welcome Neighbor STL helped us find better housing, a job for me, and medical care for my husband. Since then we have also met several other good American friends who have helped us.
When I was living in the city of
St Louis, I was able to make an income working at a day care.
I liked working there. I liked bringing home a paycheck to help support my family. I have also cooked for Welcome Neighbor Supper Clubs. I like sharing my food with other people.
My dream is for my children to go to high school and college. I would like to see my husband get the medical care he needs so he can walk better. I would like to learn how to drive a car, and I would also like to go back to Jordan to visit my family someday.
I was born and raised in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which is at the heart of Central Asia.
I was lucky to live and enjoy my life in many different corners the world, including Germany, Switzerland, and now, the USA.
Here, I first lived three lovely years in Boston, and now I am enjoying everything that St. Louis has to offer.
Since my early years, I was fascinated with learning languages, and managed to speak six of them with relative comfort.
I look forward to further adventures in this beautiful city.
Here we are, women who represent the beauty of the feminine in our human family. This encounter reveals, in each painting, our unique essence, of being a woman and her mysteries.
Life is indeed a leap, no matter how far; we live and die; we are equal.We can generate life, and each different life has its unique beauty, in its entirety, each with its own life story.
I am Rogéria, Brazilian, I have three children and four grandchildren. I love life, I believe in God, I am moved by my faith.
I have lived here in the United States for two years, with my daughter and her family.
I am learning to speak English.
I want to take an art course and explore the natural wonders of Saint Louis. Congratulations to all the beautiful women who made this fantastic encounter possible!
We continue together, on the horizon of art and its greatness to reinvent infinitely!
While our hearts beat, we can feel and appreciate even what our eyes do not see, because life is inside out now.
I was born to a young Mayan girl in the small village of Antigua, Guatemala. My Guatemalan mother was alone and poor, with no one to turn to. She had to make the difficult decision to let her child go. Adoption was the only way for me to live a normal, happy life.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the couple who were to be my American parents were saddened because they had been unable conceive a child of their own. One day they were looking at adoptions and a small child caught their eye. When they saw my picture, it was love at first sight, and they flew to Guatemala as soon as possible to see me.
The adoption process from Guatemala was long and rough, but in 2007, after months of waiting, and some sickness, I was finally theirs and able to come home. Of course, I had no idea what was in store for me. As it turned out, what awaited me was a community of love and warmth.
I grew up a happy child in St. Louis, I had a youth of gold, with many friends and a close and loving family. My mother introduced me to horseback riding at the tender age of two, and I have loved horses ever since.
But I have never forgotten my roots, the home of my birth. I have gone back to Guatemala several times. I love it. It is a part of who I am. I intend to go back in the future and throughout my life. I came to the USA in 2007. Now here I am, a freshman in high school, planning to go to college, and as I walk through life, I will always hold my head up high, proud to be a child of Guatemala.
Dora was born shortly after World War II in Kiev, Ukraine. She was a sickly child, and missed out on a year of school.
Being a Jew, she could not join the Capitol University. There were few careers she could choose from, so despite her dream of becoming an actress, Dora became an engineer. Life in the USSR was difficult and engineers were underpaid. When the family attempted to move abroad, they were denied permission to leave, and lost their employment.
Dora and her husband became Refusniks. They actively advocated for their right to leave USSR. Dora was threatened with incarceration. The family had little means to make a living , and Dora and her spouse picked up any jobs they could, no matter how bad.
After the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1987, the family was allowed to depart for the West, but with little notice and full surrender of Soviet citizenship. Dora arrived in the United States with her family with only two hundred dollars in her pocket.
The will to do better, reach independence, and celebrate personal freedom runs deep in the veins of refugees. Dora was able to return to engineering, first as a draftsman and then as an engineer. She and her husband found jobs in Saint Louis Missouri, and were able to buy a house there.
Dora loves Saint Louis deeply. Both of her parents are buried here. She has fond memories of her working days as well as her days of leisure. Now retired, and after three winning battles with cancer, Dora is a grandmother to five, a wife, a mother and a great friend.
Christelle came to St. Louis in 2005 from the Ivory Coast, her native country. Christelle is married to a Congolese native, Fabrice, and has two beautiful children. Christelle is a musician; she uses her music to glorify her Lord Jesus. You can hear a sample of Christelle's music at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRD0r-JbOts
Christelle enjoys reading about worship, writing Christ-centered songs, cooking West African meals, and playing piano in the comfort of her basement.
For the last six years Christelle has been teaching French, her native language, to children in kindergarten through 12th grade at a local school.
Christelle dedicates her heart to worshipping God through music, and she prays that God might continue to draw His people into His indescribable love and tender mercy.
When I was 14 years old, during the Balkan war in 1991, my family fled Slovenia. We fled to Croatia. I spent nearly five years there as a refugee. It was hard. Fifteen of us were crowded into a two bedroom apartment. Food was scarce.
I started working to support my mom and my family when I was 16.
My mom applied for us to come to United States. Her sister, in the U.S., was our sponsor. We got rejected, but my mom was persistent. She found a lawyer who prepared a letter which my mom sent to Rome. Finally a response arrived saying that we were to be reunited with our family in Saint Louis. We came to Saint Louis through the support of the International Institute in 1995.
I remember my uncle driving us from the airport, and seeing how vast Saint Louis was. I was amazed, scared and excited. So many emotions run through your veins when you experience something this drastic! New continent, new language, family you barely know, cousins whom you've never seen! New everything! Even the food was different!
I had dreams of going to school, but my mother became ill. I was responsible for taking care of her and working to provide for our family. So I completed my GED and applied to Saint Louis Community College, where I got my associate degree while working full time. I spoke broken English, but with support from the International Institute I got a job within a week in a lamp factory, then a billboard company. My third and final job was at a pharmaceutical company which is now part of Pfizer Incorporated.
I started on the assembly line, then moved to quality control, to engineering technician to project manager. I have been employed there since 1996.
I have battled many curve balls through my life, but I am grateful for every one of them. Those experiences & struggles have made me the person I am today. I have an amazing husband and two boys, 13 and 4 year olds. Life is always unpredictable and takes you on a different path. If everything in life is easy, there is no room for growth. Struggles in life give us perspective and help us grow!
It took many years to get where I am today, but I am proud to be an immigrant and proud to call Saint Louis my home. Home is where the family is! Home is not walls, houses or car. Home is where my boys and husband are.
I am grateful for this opportunity to share some of the parts of my life as part of this exhibit. I owe this to my mother, who despite my being an emotional teenager, dragged me here to create and design my own life, the way I see fit. None of this would be possible without her strong encouragement, love, and dedication to bring me to a better life! Thank you my sweet mom...
I miss you!
I am extremely happy to be doing this, as this year will mark my 25th year of being in America!!!
I was born and raised in Zimbabwe.
It was always my dream to become a doctor; a passion ignited by experiences of loved ones whose lives shaped me. At 10, I witnessed my grandfather passing away from a stroke. During the same time, my little sister born with a cleft lip, full-blown eczema and asthma.
She was perpetually in and out of the hospital.
A few years later, mom fell ill.
I had to assume parental responsibilities. It was all remarkably impactful and life changing. I began to channel all my energy into school and sports. It was my solace and my ticket to pursuing my passion.
At 18 I came to America for the first time on a 10-day field hockey tour. Before I left, mom spent the night in my room talking with me, but I was too excited to give her good attention. Our unplanned last memory. She passed away unannounced the day I was flying back. No chance to say goodbye. Let’s just say my world came to a screeching halt.
I was in the midst of applying to college. I was submerged in grief. I simply couldn’t fathom leaving my little sister. I was stuck: who would be there for her if I left?
The college application deadlines rolled by. But I continued with the sports.
It was, and still is, my anchor.
It helped me come alive.
Then, unexpectedly, my coach told me a college in St. Charles, MO had an opportunity for field hockey players. He encouraged me to consider it. Again, who would take care of my sister? Eventually, an uncle said to me “It would honor your mom if you pursued your dreams. Besides you have a better chance of taking care of her then".
Within 6 weeks I landed in America, a mere 3 months after my mom’s death! Talk about double turning my world upside down!
“It would honor your mom if you pursued your dreams,” drives every aspect of my life in America. She is the heartbeat of everything I do.
I have since received my bachelors in Pre-med from Lindenwood University and Masters in Public Health from Washington University in St. Louis.
Currently, I serve as a Chronic Disease Program Coordinator, focused on diabetes, heart disease, and stroke prevention and management. Our efforts are focused on serving the Promise Zone in St. Louis (North County and North City): a high poverty community where the federal government partners with local leaders to increase economic activity, improve educational opportunities, leverage private investment, reduce violent crime, enhance public health, and serve other priorities identified by the community.
I love this work. It is right at the intersection of my passion and purpose!
It doesn’t end here though:
I was nominated and accepted to be a 2020 New Leaders Council Fellow. With exposure I have seen and experienced the realness of health and racial systemic disparities. I aspire to influence change that affords equitable access, opportunity, and quality of life to our high burdened communities.
I am also a field hockey coach and still play any opportunity I get. It is my absolute joy to pour into these girls the same way I was poured into. There is much
I have learned from sports; skills not taught in the classroom.
I never imagined field hockey would be the pathway to realizing my dreams. I revel in seeing the athletes push and step into their potential!
I also sit on the Board of Sherwood Forest Camp, serving children from low-income and underserved communities, who otherwise do not have access or opportunity to explore and self-realize. Every kid deserves a shot at being his or her best self!
My father was an administrator at the University of Science in Beirut. The night we left our home the Lebanese army had split between the Christians and the Muslims and it was not safe for us to stay there any more. My father went to The American Embassy to check on the status of our emigration visas. He was told that we could leave immediately if we could make it to the helicopter in one hour.
This was late at night. I was awakened suddenly from my sleep and told we had to leave right away. I began to pack, but my parents told me there was no time for that; we had to go immediately. So we left with only the clothes on our backs, and were rushed to a helicopter. That same night our apartment building was bombed to rubble.
The helicopter flew us to an American battleship, which took us to Cyprus. From there we were taken to Germany, then England, then the U.S. Like so many immigrants, we ended up in St. Louis, which is where I live today.
I was born and raised in Pakistan.
I came to the United States at the age of twelve with my parents.
We came to live the American Dream.
My parents invested their whole lifetime in raising me and my brothers, and I am truly thankful to them. I am also thankful to this country for giving me and my family the opportunity to establish a better life and create careers for ourselves.
I am happily married to an officer in the U.S. Army. I have earned a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Logan College of Chiropractic.
I recently took a trip to a camp for Syrian refugees, through the Islamic Medical Association of North America. It was an amazing experience. The refugees' stories were absolutely mesmerizing. Most of them had led stable, comfortable lives in Syria, but in the war they lost, not only their income and their homes, but often even their loved ones. Many of my patients had to leave their homes in the middle of the night, in complete darkness, to seek refuge. In a situation like this it is not just about diagnosing and treating; it also has to do with relating to people on a deeper level.
Hearing these stories made me realize how blessed we are to be in a country with democracy.
I feel blessed to tell my story because my story is not about circumstances, my story is about ME. When I was eight years old, my parents decided to bring me to this country, a decision I will always be grateful about even though a few disagree.
I have been living in Saint Louis, Missouri, since my family and I arrived in this country. I love this state as my own, even though sometimes I feel like it does not reciprocate my feelings. I will be eternally grateful for all the opportunities that have been provided to me, and those opportunities have not been taken for granted.
In 2012, President Obama introduced the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA. I applied for this program and soon after received a work authorization card and Social Security Number. DACA allowed me to have a driver’s license.
Having an actual identity in this country gave me life. I could live without my everyday fear of being deported or having to drive without a license. So much political discourse seeks to dehumanize immigrants, including young people covered by DACA, and we are so much more than that.
DACA has changed my life for the better, as it gave me the opportunity to come out of the shadows. I graduated from Community College May 2020 with a General Transfer Studies Degree and I am currently enrolled at Eastern Connecticut State University to get my bachelor’s degree in Social Work.
However, all my dreams and aspirations are now crumbling down with the new threats to the DACA program. We have proven time and time again that we are individuals with good moral character and that we are a strong force contributing to American society.
Our current immigration system is not only broken, but unjust. Our country stands to benefit tremendously from the DACA program, and I believe this is also the compassionate thing to do for young people like myself who are, in our hearts, Americans.
I hope that others see that. Until then, I will continue to work hard and pursue happiness for myself.
I BELONG HERE
I am from Egypt. My first husband had lived in the United States since he was 12 years old. I moved to the U.S. to be with him. But the marriage did not work out well, and I returned to Egypt.
I wanted to divorce my husband, but I could not as long as I remained in Egypt. So I returned to the United States, and got the divorce. While in the U.S., I met a man that I got along well with. Long story short, we got married.
I had a son by him, which has made me very happy.
Unfortunately, that marriage did not last long either, and so now
I am a single working mom.
I don't think I will get married again. Enough is enough.
I am employed at a large hardware store chain. I started at an entry-level position. Like most immigrants, I work very hard, and I am very dependable. I also received a good education in Egypt. So now, a few years later,
I am a product manager with a good paycheck.
The Covid shutdown has actually been good for me. The store where I work is one of the few branches of this chain that is actually making money, which is good for my paycheck. And my son, who is now in middle school, is very happy. He really likes virtual, distance learning. His teachers are very helpful and attentive, and his grades have improved enormously, from "F"s to "A"s and "B"s.
For this project I asked to be painted as a pharoah. When I saw the picture, I was nervous about showing it to anyone. But after a while I posted the picture.
Everyone loved it.
I came to St. Louis in 2010 when I was about 6 or 7 years old. I was born in a refugee camp in Eastern Nepal.
Everybody in my family lived close to each other, so if we needed anything, we could just call each other. I played with my cousins a lot. We played a game where you put some small rocks in your hand and toss them up, then flip your hand so they land on the back of your hand. If they fall off, you're out. We played a game where you stand up tall, then bend over and someone hops over you and has to say a certain word. We played a police game where we got papers then wrote down who is the police and who is the thief.
I went to school from pre-school on. We went to church and Sunday school. After finishing the regular church service we would go home, then come back later for Sunday school. My favorite thing about the camp was that everybody was close to each other and we got to play games, sometimes all night long.
The difficulties were mostly about our house - we had bed bugs.
And there were holes in the roof, so water would come into the house when it rained.
In the camp every kid talked about how when we got to America, we would ride around in helicopters.
I didn’t really know what it would be like. My whole extended family left the camp together. We all got on an airplane together, except my grandparents, who came later.
Inside, the airport it was so big! There were a lot of TVs and a lot of luggage. I carried a bag just in case I threw up. When we got to St. Louis, I was very nauseous in the car ride to our relatives’ house, due to the flight.
At first, we lived in an apartment on Utah St. near the library. I went to second grade at the Welcome School with my cousin, Ruth. We moved out to South county in the middle of 7th grade and I went to Bayless Middle School.
When I get together with my cousins, we like to make different kinds of foods and hang out. My favorite subject in school is math.
I like to read good books.
I like psychology. I’d like to learn how to swim and go to the lake in Chicago. Someday I’d like to go to Hawaii so I can see the islands and the beaches.
Artists note: Shreejana has been helped on her journey by her participation with the Revival School for the Arts.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Democratic Republic of Congo
I was born in 2002 in Bujumbura, Burundi, where my family lived as refugees. We moved into a refugee camp in 2007 because it wasn’t safe for my family in the city. In the camp, every time my friends and I saw white people, we would follow them around, laughing and shouting “Mzungu, Mzungu!" ("Muzungu" means "white people" in many African languages).
They were mostly UNHCR staff and people from other NGO’s. They would come for parties every Mother’s Day, or meetings about the refugee situation.
Some of my favorite memories from the camp were of spending New Years with my friends: we would walk around the camp the whole night, until midnight.
People would be dancing, singing, and playing outside. I also loved it when we made a fire and someone who could play guitar would come and we’d sing for hours.
In the camp it was difficult to get water. Sometimes people fought over the water. Sometimes there wouldn’t be water for days, so we would have to walk far to the mountain spring. In the camp, they gave us fufu (a traditional African food), beans, oil, and soap. My parents were lucky enough to have jobs, so they were able to buy vegetables and other things to eat.
When we were going to come to the U.S., we thought everything would be perfect and we would have a really beautiful house. We were surprised by the apartment they brought us to. It was old, and not in a nice area. But we have a big family and everyone had jobs, so we all worked and saved money and moved to a better apartment as soon as we could.
When we first came, we were surprised that we could get a lot more food than in the camp.
We were so happy to have milk to drink! Our people, the Banyamulenge, love cows, and we love milk!
Our caseworker from the Institute helped us with everything. After about 2 months I had to start school. It was scary because I didn’t speak English, but a lot of kids who spoke my language helped me at school. Sonia, my sister, was in high school there too. I couldn’t understand anything at first because we spoke in French in my school in Burundi. I spoke Kinyamulenge at home with my family, and we spoke Swahili with friends and in the market.
Within a few months, I could understand everything they were saying in English. I only stayed at that school one year, then went to an art school. I get to work on dance every day and learn ballet, jazz, modern, and hip hop. I love to dance and I love fashion.
I like math and English classes and I’m continuing to learn French.
I love good books and movies. I want to go to university next year and explore different careers.
Artists note: Coco's participation with the Revival School for the Arts has helped her with her integration into the St. Louis community.
I was born in a refugee camp in 1997. I was about 7 years old when I went away to boarding school in India. Our pastor was from India, so he arranged for us to go to school there and learn English.
The education was much better in India. We spent most of our time after school just studying. In Nepal we had mostly played after school. We lived in a hostel in India.
I came home once or twice a year. Every time I came home from India, I got to play with my friends. We made up our own games.
My favorite memory from India was my birthday. An older boy from my family, Prem, made a special dinner for me from a bird he had shot in the forest. We hardly ever got to eat meat! It was wonderful for me to realize that he cared about me. I was small and away from my family and I thought no one cared about me.
I was bullied by some older children, so by the end of the term there, I wanted to come home.
I left the school when my family started the process to come to the US. When I heard we were going to America, I was really scared, but excited at the same time. We didn’t know if our parents would get a job. We didn’t know if we would see our friends and family again.
We thought there would be big buildings with glass on them and that everything would be really clean. We thought that everybody in the U.S. had big houses. They didn't, but the apartment we got here was definitely better than where we lived in the camp, and the Welcome School here was really easy compared to school in India. It helped that I already knew English.
Today I’m studying hard in the nursing program at Forest Park Community College. Eventually I might become a pediatric nurse or a labor and delivery nurse.
Someday I’d like to travel home to Nepal and India. Prem and I used to talk about going back to visit our school there.
I have a little Pomeranian named Zeus, but someday I would like to adopt another dog and a cat.
Artists note: Samal has done very well. She has also been helped by her participation with the Revival School for the Arts.
with her sister Dil (left)
with her sister, Dil (left)
I, Nara, was born in Bhutan in 1959. I was the oldest daughter and Dil was the youngest. I got married when I was 9 years old and went to live with my husband’s family. It was only a ten minute walk from my house, so I kept in touch with my family.
In Bhutan, we had our own farm. All the neighbors would come together to plant seeds in the spring. We loved singing together while planting, and sometimes a mud fight would break out. That was one of my happiest memories.
I was 34 years old when the government of Bhutan started threatening us and telling us to leave. So we packed up what we could and moved into a refugee camp in Eastern Nepal.
It was really difficult to leave our home and farm and live in a small hut in the camp. We were given a limited amount of food. It was difficult to manage it and feed all of our 8 children. My husband worked very hard making knives and silver bowls to sell in order to provide for the family. We don’t have many good memories from Nepal.
It was hard.
We didn’t want to come to America at first, because we thought we might have even less, but our children convinced us that our future would be better in America, so we agreed to come. We came to St. Louis in 2011. When we first came, there were few Nepali’s here, but soon we found friends at church, and other Nepali’s to talk to. We lived in an apartment near South Grand for four years. Then we were able to buy a house in South County on Morganford.
At the moment, we are trying to decide whether to move to Ohio where there are many other Nepali families.
And now I have 13 grandchildren. Spending time with them is my greatest joy.
When Nara and Dil arrived in the U.S., they and their family were helped with their integration into the St. Louis community by the Revival School for the Arts.
When she was six years old, Emma and her family fled Iraq as refugees from the Gulf War. They fled to Saudi Arabia, where they lived in a refugee camp for two years. When Emma was eight years old, the U.N. helped her, her father, and her sister and brother come to the United States.
Interestingly enough, Emma's future first husband was on the plane with Emma's family when they flew to the United States. Emma knew nothing of that at the time, though. She was only eight years old.
The family was originally settled in Phoenix, Arizona. Fourteen years ago, Emma moved to St. Louis.
Emma currently lives with her second husband and two children in Illinois, where her children, a girl and a boy, can live in a small town with good schools. However, their lives are still strongly tied to St. Louis proper; Emma and her husband own a nice little restaurant, Taste of Lebanon, in the Central West End in St. Louis.
And sometimes Emma and her husband cook their delicious Lebanese food for Welcome Neighbor STL's fundraising dinners.
The covid shutdown has been difficult for Emma, as it has been for so many people. Happily, with the restaurant, either Emma or her husband can be at home with the children at any given time. On the other hand, restaurant work runs to late hours. But Emma's children are very good; they take care of each other, which makes it easier for Emma and her husband.
Emma likes the St. Louis area. She does not feel separate here. She feels at home.
I was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. We didn’t go to school there; we just played all the time. We used to play a game like marbles, but with rocks, or a game where kids hold a rope around them, starting with their feet and then raise it up more and more; the other kids have to jump inside the rope as it gets higher.
We had a lot of fun.
My family came to St. Louis in June of 2008 when I was seven years old. We didn’t really know where we were going. In the apartment they gave us there were 4 bedrooms, but we all slept in one bedroom the first night because we didn’t know that we were allowed to use all the rooms.
In America we have to help our parents with everything. They don’t speak English and we have forgotten some of our language, but there is a man at our church who is trying to teach us our language and culture. Our church helps us a lot, letting us use their hall for language classes, birthday parties, and weddings. And the people at the Peace Center help us with homework and other things.
Someday I want to go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, and go to London and ride the big red bus.
Sometimes I go to Des Moines, Iowa, which is where the biggest community of Kunama people, like my family, is located.
I go to my sister’s house and babysit my niece and go to my brother’s house and barbecue.
Kunama people eat injera, Ethiopian flat bread, like most Ethiopian people do, as well as goat stew, chicken, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and greens.
I want to go to school to become a dental hygienist. I saw a commercial on YouTube about being a dental hygienist. Right now I’m in college taking general education classes. I’m hoping to be done with my education in 4 more years. I also want to be a real estate agent. Someday I hope I have a big house and a husband and two kids.
Artist's note: Saba is doing well. She was helped with her integration into the St. Louis community by her participation with the Revival School for the Arts.
I am the daughter of immigrant parents who struggled their entire lives to provide us with the life we deserved. I was born in Afghanistan but my parents moved to Russia when I was 3.
I was very young when both of my parents passed away. It was difficult to deal with life, but also to deal with our community. Our community expects women not to be strong or independent, and not to live alone.
I had to grow up at a very early age. I was twelve when I started working. I went to school during the day. After school I would write short stories and poems for our school magazine.
I graduated school with honors, and planned to go college. But I didn’t have tuition money and Russian colleges don’t give scholarships to immigrants.
So instead of school I worked at a private school teaching English and German. Our life was barely a life. The Russians were not happy because we were immigrants. We went on a hunger strike to get resettlement out of Russia. We were on hunger strike for three days. Finally the U. N. decided to speak with us about our resettlement. After a long wait, the U. N. decided for us and we were accepted to resettle in the United States.
We arrived in St. Louis in 2014. It was scary. I got depressed for couple of months due to the culture shock and new environment.
It was, and still is, very difficult, for many reasons, but we believed that everything would be fine in time. Time is the only medicine for every wound. Eventually, things got better because my sister and brother started working. I went to community college and my baby brother went to school.
American life is not easy. It has been, and still is, crazy. I have always heard that American life changes you in lots of ways. It has certainly changed us. We went through many things in the past six years. It wasn’t easy for me; I was going to school and taking care of my family. I had to make sure that the bills were paid on time, make sure that my disabled sister’s appointments were not missed, take my sister to work every morning, pick her up, and cook every day for my family.
While I was busy with my family, I also had to go to school and get good grades so I could finally transfer to a school with a scholarship.
Our older brother would come home drunk every day, and we weren’t able to control him. He would nearly beat us to death. After a while, I couldn’t keep us safe from him any more, so I had to take my sisters and run away from our brothers.
I was still struggling with managing my time with school and giving time to my sisters. My disabled sister got very sick and had to be hospitalized during my last college exam. I couldn’t take my exam because I had to be with my sister at the hospital. It was a life and death fight for her.
She got much better after a year of care and lots of time spent with her. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She tried to commit suicide three times but I was always there to stop her and help her get over the pressure. I left college for two years to help my sister. However, I went back to school. I took 18-20 credits each semester to finish college and finally be able to have the American life style.
During school, I met someone who made feel very safe: a man who walked me home and made me feel special; a man who finally brought back my trust and gained my trust as a woman. He was very certain about me, and proposed to me for a lifetime commitment. I agreed, and took my chance, and moved with him to San Francisco. I brought my sisters with me too. I couldn’t leave them alone. I transferred my degree to the University of San Francisco.
I was finally able to graduate with a computer engineering degree from San Francisco University this summer, with all the craziness during this pandemic. I am working at Facebook now, and I am finally the woman I have always wanted to be: strong, independent, and kind. My life journey isn’t a fairy tale; I definitely didn’t live the easy life. I went through everything to reach my destination. However, during this journey I have learned that there is no final destination. Life is a long road trip. You will fall, you will get hurt, you will get distracted, but eventually, if you never quit, you will get to where you want to be.
I am 13 years old now. I came to the U.S. when I was 8. In Togo my mom and I lived in a family house in a town. We didn’t live in a village or the city. We lived with my grandma, my dad’s sister and other uncles.
My dad was in America already.
He came back to Togo to marry my mom.
I was three years old when I started school. My mom used to bring me to school, then go to work. We had to pay to go to school, and for food at school. We had to speak French at school and write in cursive, but we had really nice teachers.
When we were about to come to America, we had to keep it a secret because there were people who were jealous of us, and wanted to keep us from coming.
The day we left, it was hard, because I had to give away all of my toys and miss school. I came here with my mom on the plane. When we arrived at the airport, a lot of family greeted us.
We might go back home to see family next year. In Africa, people make it seem like coming to America makes you automatically rich, but it wasn’t like that at all.
I would rather go to school in America, but I would rather live in Africa.
When I finish high school, I want to go to college. I used to want to be a doctor, but then I learned how much school it takes. Right now I just want to get a small job like babysitting just to make a little money of my own and buy the things I like.
Artist's note: Like many young immigrants, Diana participates in the programs offered by the Revival School for the Arts She is doing very well.
In June of 2016 Muna, with her family, was offered the opportunity to come to the United States as a refugee. Muna and her family had been in a camp in Jordan for two and a half years.
Since coming to the United States, the language has always been a struggle for Muna. And there has been a huge amount of mail and paperwork. Muna has been assisted by the International Institute, and Welcome Neighbor brought her additional relief. Muna is grateful for this help. She has said that if it weren't for Jessica Bueler and Welcome Neighbor reaching out to the community, it's unclear where refugees like Muna would be.
And now Muna is saving up to buy a house someday. She is very happy that her children are in school and learning the language. School is very important to every immigrant and refugee.
I arrived in the U.S. with my husband. He had already been living here for a year.
I found the to be a very beautiful country, clean and safe, and my husband and his brothers found a very good program called Community Social Action.
I want my daughters to have a better life than the one I had in my country. I want to be able to say that everything we left behind was worth it.
Miriam is the mother of one of the students in the high school art classes that I taught. Miriam's daughter is doing very well: she is a smart, energetic, very responsible young woman, with a charming personality and a sly sense of humor. I, for one, am grateful that Miriam brought her here.
When I came to the United States I came here walking: walking for two days straight, walking through the desert. I have gotten caught before, but I never gave up. I kept on trying so I could have a better life for me and for my children.
Four years after I got here my father got sick. I went back to Mexico to see him, but sadly, he had passed away. It was one of the worst days of my life. I had to go back to the USA, though, so I tried again, but I got caught again. So I tried again. This time I made it.
My life hasn't been too hard, but that doesn’t mean I love it; I’m a single mother with two kids. I bust my butt for them, to give them what they need. I’ve been here for almost 21 years. I’m happy with what I have gotten so far.
This show could only have happened with the help of good friends, and the immigrant service organizations in St. Louis. These organizations are the living definition of service to humanity. They accomplish miraculous results: finding housing, language assistance and education, employment, food aid, access to public services, and more, on a budget of next to nothing and a mostly volunteer staff. They do all this for no reimbursement and no reward, except to know that they are helping people in need. To people who have nothing, they give opportunity and dignity.
I have been truly humbled by the people in these organizations.
They have taught me what loving one's neighbor truly is.
I want to thank the following for having made this show possible:
• The Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, who provided a generous Artist Support Grant for the paints, brushes, palettes, canvases, and other materials that made this work possible. https://racstl.org/
• Artmart St. Louis, who kindly assisted me in obtaining materials, supplies, and advice. https://www.artmartstl.com/
• Sarah Bernhardt of the Intersect Arts Center, https://www.intersectstl.org/ , who gave me a physical location for the show, as well as priceless support, encouragement, and good counsel.
The directors of the following organizations took their valuable time to introduce me to the beautiful immigrant women I ended up portraying. I am deeply grateful to:
• Jen Owens, F.O.R.A.I. (Friends of Immigrants And Refugees):
• Jessica Bueler, Welcome Neighbor STL:
• Michael Ramsey, The Revival School for the Arts:
• Julia Ostropolsky, Bilingual STL:
I would also like to thank the many others who helped me with this work, particularly my infinitely, angelically patient wife, Kanchan Denise Chisako Melemai Perry; my longtime friend Eric Blackerbey, who gave me the idea for this show, as well as priceless advice along the way; and my friend, former student, and tireless producer of the Beauty, Strength, and Courage online show, Elgin Bokari Thutmos Smith, aka Kari the Illustrator
To see more of my artwork, please go to: