Food for the Soul: Welcome Neighbor STL’s Big Supper Club
In 2016, the Riverfront Times published an article about four Syrian refugees, none older than 15 years-old, who were attacked outside of their apartment complex. This occurred on the 1100 block of Hodiamont, a four-minute drive from Washington University’s Danforth Campus. One of the many people reading the Riverfront Times that morning was a woman named Jessica Bueler. She saw the article, and instead of just turning the page and forgetting the horror she felt, Bueler decided to take action.
Bueler began what was originally a one-time toiletry supply drive for refugees that turned into a non-profit organization called Welcome Neighbor STL. Welcome Neighbor’s mission statement, according to their website, is to “partner with refugee and immigrant families, connecting them with the people and opportunities that will empower them to build and live their best life in their new country.”
In the six and a half years since this organization started, Welcome Neighbor STL has hosted 230 events, raised nearly $500,000, paired 60 refugee families with about 200 volunteers, and paired 33 students with 22 tutors to help them learn English. Of this nearly $500,000, a minimum of 90% of all proceeds go directly back to refugee cooks. Last year, Welcome Neighbor STL was the community partner for WashU’s Thurtene Carnival where 100% of the profits directly supported refugees.
Fatuma Ibrahim, a first-year student at WashU, is currently a spring intern for Welcome Neighbor. Born in Kenya Kakuma camp, one of the largest refugee camps in Kenya, Ibrahim and her family moved to the United States when she was 8-years-old. Her parents fled the Somalia war and lived in multiple different refugee camps. They had over “20 plus years … of having … no permanent home and just no security,” Ibrahim said. This touched Ibrahim, making her want to “find a way to help people who are going through the same process.”
Ibrahim explained that when searching for a college, all she knew was that she wanted to study something that would eventually enable her to work directly with refugees.
“I can actually put this into practice and use my own personal story since I am a refugee,” Ibrahim said.
When Ibrahim, a prospective major in Global Studies and Chinese, was looking through the Global Studies newsletter, she found information about an internship with Welcome Neighbor. Despite the worry that as a first-year she did not have enough experience for this internship, she applied on a whim. Welcome Neighbor was “very nice and welcoming” and told Ibrahim that they needed more voices like hers to better connect with refugees. She got the internship.
On March 29, 2023, Welcome Neighbor STL put forth their second Big Supper Club, a spin on their regular Supper Club events. At the typical Super Club events, one of Welcome Neighbor’s refugee chefs caters a meal, and the proceeds of the event go directly back to the refugee chef.
For the Big Supper Club event, 10 refugee chefs came together to make 11 different dishes as a fundraiser for anyone in St. Louis to come enjoy. These dishes included Syrian Kibbeh (ground beef, onions, bulgur wheat, salt, and spices), Iraqi Dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice, onions, herbs, and spices), Afghan Mantu (a dumpling filled with lentils, vegetables, herbs, and spices), and Indian Biryani (rice, chicken, vegetables, yogurt, herbs, and Indian spices). To cap off this delicious buffet, the dessert consisted of South African Melkhert (a creamy milk tart topped off with cinnamon) and Syrian Baklava (flaky phyllo dough filled with sweet pistachios, ghee, and sugar syrup).
In addition to experiencing this delicious meal, three of the refugee families that Welcome Neighbor STL works with shared their stories in the form of videos. From language barriers to inaccessibility to transportation, these videos highlighted some of the issues that many refugees deal with. One refugee explained that it was “difficult to start over alone in” a new country, and Welcome Neighbor allowed his family to join a “big team, big family.”
Ibrahim attests to this big family community feel.
“The passion [Welcome Neighbor STL] has for their families … the dedication and compassion really touched my heart,” Ibrahim said.
On the night of Big Supper Club, each of the attendees and chefs came together to rejoice in community and culture through a shared appreciation for food. For anyone looking to attend the next Supper Club, here is more information, and here are other ways to get involved. In addition to making donations to help with emergency funds, you can also sign up to be an ESL Tutor or volunteer at the Supper Club and various other events.
According to Ibrahim, “passion is what drives you to continue doing more and improving.” WelcomeNeighbor STL carries that passion to continue growing the community for refugees in the area.