St. Louis businesswoman Jessica Bueler found a new calling helping welcome Syrian refugee families to the city.

By Elizabeth Holmes
Updated January 29, 2018
Jessica Bueler talking with her neighbor, Mawda Altayan
Credit: Andrea Morales

St. Louis resident Jessica Bueler was scrolling through the local news one night when she came across a story about an attack on four Syrian teens. It hit close to home, quite literally: The attack happened about a mile from the tobacco shop she owns in the Delmar Loop. “What are you going to do about it, Jessica?” the 36-year-old said to herself.

Bueler reached out to a Syrian friend and asked how she could help. He connected her to members of the local Syrian refugee community (like most major cities, St. Louis has accepted a few hundred refugees of the more than 18,000 who have been resettled in the U.S. since 2011). There was an urgent need for personal care products, so Bueler decided to organize a toiletry drive. After she posted a Nextdoor request for donations, boxes of everything from tampons to toothbrushes soon filled her store.

The day before Thanksgiving 2016, a group of volunteers delivered the toiletries to several families. The first recipient invited Bueler in for coffee, a kind gesture but also a sobering experience. Bueler was horrified to learn of crowded apartments infested with roaches, bedbugs, and mice. Most of the families spoke little to no English and had little support.

Bueler expanded her mission, becoming a mentor and advocate for about 20 families—each with two parents and five or more children—and started a group of other volunteers called Welcome Neighbor STL. They assist with everyday tasks, like scheduling doctors’ appointments, and raised more than $14,000 last year to move the refugees to better housing.

She hopes to expand her efforts to help all refugees in the St. Louis area, not just families from Syria. “We don’t turn anyone down,” she says. “We meet with any family and do what we can to help.”