A Syrian-American Searches for Identity in Missouri

Hala Gorani returns to the suburban St. Louis neighborhood she called home as a young child, seeking answers to unclear questions

A Syrian-American Searches for Identity in Missouri
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

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Mike Doskocil digs the earth around a grave in the Father Dickson Cemetery, cups it in his hand and runs back to us: “Does someone have a piece of paper?” he asks, out of breath. I tear a page from my notebook and give it to him. “Thanks, I want to take some of this soil back with me,” he says, pouring the contents of his hand into a folded paper.

The founder, drummer and lead singer of Drunks With Guns runs excitedly from one headstone to another where many Civil War veterans, civil rights leaders and educators are buried, at the African-American graveyard outside Crestwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. “When I go, I want to be cremated and my ashes scattered right here. Where else makes sense?”

He smiles broadly, revealing silver-capped front teeth. Jamie, his wife of 20 years, looks at me and chuckles. My brother Zaf and I exchange puzzled looks. It’s a sunny November day with a clear blue sky, but the icy Midwest winds cut right through our clothing as they sweep over the granite and marble headstones. Jamie blows into her cupped hands and puts them back into the pockets of a short gray wool coat as her eyes follow the nearly 60-year-old Doskocil reading names and dates off of ancient headstones.

We’ve just driven through the streets of a nearby suburb where my family had briefly lived when my father worked as an engineer for a firm based in St. Louis. I had organized a research trip for a memoir I’m writing, and my Washington, D.C.-based brother, Zaf, decided to tag along. When he suggested involving Doskocil, one of the kids he used to play with during our time there in the early ’70s, I was thrilled. “He knows all about this place,” Zaf had said. “He knows what happened to all the people who lived there.” It was Doskocil’s idea to drop by the cemetery as part of our visit that day.

One question hung over our visit on that chilly Friday morning. What had become of this neighborhood — officially the Catalina subdivision of Crestwood, Missouri — that my mother, Nour, had always called welcoming and friendly to the only immigrant family in the area?

“We were in our 20s, and all the families there were young professionals with kids. It was very American, with barbecues and birthday parties,” my mother said in describing our time there.

The author’s mother (far left), her father with the author on his lap and a visiting cousin (far right). (Hala Gorani)

We stopped the car in front of our former family home on Tahiti Drive. I was only 3 years old when we left the United States after my father got a job with an American company in Algeria. I had almost no memories of the place.

“I’m ringing the doorbell,” I told Zaf, who did not look confident that this was a wise idea.

The one-story, ranch-style house occupied a corner plot at the intersection of two roads in Crestwood. There was a dark wood patio wrapped around the side and front of the house. “I think they added some decking,” my brother said. I walked up the driveway, unsure of the reception I would get. Memories were coming back: It was on this same path that Zaf and I had our photo taken on a snowy day in 1973. In the snapshot, I was the 3-year-old daughter of a newly arrived Syrian family. Half a century later, I’m a woman looking for answers to questions I didn’t quite know how to formulate. I might be in the same exact place, but it felt like a different country altogether.

The author and her brother, Zaf, in Crestwood, Missouri, in 1973. (Hala Gorani)

I pressed a button, uncertain that it was the doorbell. A dog barked. What felt like a long time passed. Perhaps no one was home. I rang again. I waited. Zaf stood a few feet behind me on the driveway. There were boxes, crates, a recycling bin and a few pieces of garden furniture on the front porch. There were two heavy beige tarps nearby, held down by small concrete slabs covering other large items. I heard rustling. A middle-aged woman came to the door, holding back a barking beagle. I suddenly felt like an intruder.

“I’m so sorry to disturb you,” I said, smiling as broadly as I could, worried that my unnaturally wide grin made me look unhinged. Though we had come unannounced, I was hoping that the story I was about to share would quickly brighten the mood. “My brother and I used to live in your house 50 years ago, and we were wondering how the place — I mean the neighborhood — had changed since,” I said, trying to be heard over the dog’s barking. I waited for a smile.

“Great,” she said, not smiling.

“Anyway, just thought we’d say hi. May I ask how long you’ve lived here?”

She holds the dog back. “Thirty years. We moved in when our little boy was … well, he’s not little anymore.”

And with that, the conversation ended. I had imagined a tour or questions about what the house looked like when we were kids playing in the same front yard 50 years ago. We would have told her that we had pictures of us sitting on the lowest branch of the tree in her front yard — a tree that was now too tall for anyone to climb — or that we had a giant Zenith TV in the living room across from a ’70s white leather sofa and that, here, down the hall to the left, was my bedroom, and there, at the end of the corridor, was my parents’ room, where I would run to in the middle of the night so that the house ghosts wouldn’t snatch me on the way.

Disappointed, I retraced my steps back to our car. I needed to try my luck elsewhere. It was too cold for anyone to be outside or for children to be playing in the front yards. I would have to knock on more doors.

We looped several times around Crestwood with the Doskocils, slowing down in front of the houses my brother and his friend remembered, driving down Montego Drive, turning left on Samoa Drive and into Capri Drive. The starter homes of the 1960s and 1970s, smaller ranches and ramblers that predated the explosion of suburban McMansions across America, seemed to be stuck in a time warp, like photos that had aged and yellowed over several decades. The outline of the homes remained, but everything else was unfamiliar. “It actually looks like someone else’s house. It looks beaten up,” Doskocil said as we stopped outside his childhood home on Montego Drive.

Was this a case of early memories clashing with the reality of adulthood, when the world we experience as grown-ups is always smaller and less grand than we remember? Or had this slice of suburban St. Louis not delivered on the American middle-class dream, standing still over the decades, until one day the Catalina subdivision and its exotic street names had been left by the wayside?

“Should I go ring the bell?” I asked Doskocil as the car idled in front of his former house.

“No way,” he said. “You’re in America. There’s a real chance someone will shoot you.”

I felt defeated: There was a real chance that I would leave Crestwood empty-handed. I was writing a book about identity and belonging, so coming to St. Louis made sense, even if I barely remembered any of my time there. The issue, I soon realized, was that I didn’t quite know what I was looking for. What would speaking to some old neighbors tell me about myself, anyway?

Ours was the story of many Middle Eastern immigrant families. Both my parents had come from Aleppo, Syria, where they had lived a life of privilege from birth. My maternal grandfather was a justice minister in several cabinets before the coup that brought the Baathists to power in the 1960s. For my mother and father — and for millions like them — coming to America for education and economic opportunity came with a price: separation from family, isolation and, in some cases, discrimination.

They had joined a wave of young, educated professionals from the Middle East who emigrated to America after discriminatory quotas favoring European migrants were loosened in the mid-’60s. The Levant, rich and diverse in people and land, was disenfranchising its own youth. The political instability, the corruption, the cronyism: What had started as a promise of a new era after Western colonial powers were pushed out had morphed into dysfunctional and crooked autocracies — and the worst was yet to come.

For the few years that they lived in Missouri, my mother and father settled into a life of cookouts and summer backyard parties, where neighbors would bring trays of brownies and Tupperwares of potato salad. We put up Christmas trees and bought turkey for Thanksgiving. Kids played outside, unsupervised. My mother spent afternoons with the wives of men whose single salaries could still support entire families. For my parents, Syria felt like another life.

Earlier that day, Zaf and I had driven south to another Crestwood subdivision, looking for Ken and Mona Priest, who lived across the street from us on Tahiti Drive in the early ’70s. The Priests had since moved a couple of miles away to a two-story house in a suburban enclave with manicured lawns and wider driveways. I was hoping the address I had found online was still valid. Ken would be 78 and Mona 76. Their daughter Becky was my age and their son, Mikey, a couple of years younger than Zaf. There was an autumn wreath hanging from the door knocker. The house was lived in, but no one was home. I wrote our name and number on a piece of notebook paper, folded it tightly and wedged it inside the wreath.

On our way there, I had noticed MAGA flags hanging from windows on a couple of the houses. The political fault lines, deepened by President Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” slogan, had found their way to Crestwood. Though the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County — the suburbs adjacent to the city to the west — largely vote Democratic, Missouri itself is a solid Republican state. I wondered if this had caused friction in the neighborhood. “Yes, you feel the tension,” said Kaitlyn, a young salesperson working at the beauty counter of a nearby Walgreens store, where I had dropped by to pick up a few toiletries. “But things are changing,” she said. “Younger people are moving to the area. It’s getting better.”

“I’m done here,” Doskocil said after our drive. Something about this return trip to Crestwood seemed to make him sad. “It’s just not what I remember,” he said. In the years after his departure from St. Louis, Drunks With Guns put out music in a genre loosely called “noise rock” that sounded more like a scream than anything resembling a melody. (“They came no weirder or more subterranean than these guys,” wrote the musician and author Julian Cope about the band.) Although the original ’80s incarnation of Drunks With Guns broke up years ago, Doskocil still performs in small venues. His best-known track is called “Wonderful Subdivision,” which includes the lyrics “All my friends are here/ With their stupid haircuts/ And their stupid lives/ In a wonderful subdivision.”

Because I wasn’t able to talk to any of our former neighbors, I quizzed Doskocil. “What do you remember about us? We were the only immigrant family for miles. Certainly the only Muslim family.”

He thought about it. “We didn’t clock that, I don’t think. You were white and your parents heterosexual. And your mom was hot.”

That evening, we attended a hockey game in St. Louis. There are efforts in the city to rejuvenate the historic downtown area and attract tourists, but it’s suffering from a high crime rate and declining revenue. Like many American cities that relied on industry for wealth, St. Louis has been losing residents — and tax dollars — for decades. The exodus to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s turned a once-prosperous metropolis into a shadow of what it had been, and perhaps more poignantly, what it could have become. “Once a major regional business center,” the Manhattan Institute economist Aaron Renn wrote in 2019, “St. Louis has seen a dramatic erosion in civic standing,” despite the presence of some Fortune 500 companies, quality universities and a regional population of about 3 million people. The football team moved to California, Trans World Airlines was bought by American Airlines, and companies downsized or moved to other states.

I wondered if it was this economic malaise that had caused the smaller neighborhoods in the suburbs to lose some of their vitality. A 1960s real estate ad for the Catalina subdivision in Crestwood featured a drawing of a brand-new home. The headline read: “Modern! Unique! Distinctive!” and promised “Professional Landscaping!” and “Furniture Finish Birch Cabinets!” among other amenities. “The houses were new, and we weren’t going to stay there long,” my father told me when I asked him later why he chose Crestwood.

The ad’s retro quality also communicated a sense of optimism for a neighborhood that seems to have lost its luster over the decades. The Catalina subdivision feels left behind. More than most cities in America, St. Louis remains a deeply segregated metropolitan area. A 2017 study ranks it as one of the most segregated cities in the country, contributing to massive economic and social inequities where racial tensions can flare up in an instant. Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot the Black teenager Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, sparking weeks of riots and violence, lived at the time of the incident in Crestwood, a city that is only 1.3% Black.

“I wish I hadn’t come, to be honest,” Zaf says. “Better not to mess with your childhood memories. I remember being happy and free here.”

Doskocil, whose father was a traffic judge in Crestwood when he lived there as a child, echoed the sentiment: “My dad did so much to this house. He even installed a light post with a speaker in it so we could wash the car and listen to the stereo at the same time.”

I only cared about finding at least one of the neighbors who still lived in the area, and my trip was ending in failure.

On the flight back to Washington, my brother and I bickered about whether the woman who now lives in our old home was unfriendly. (I thought she could have been warmer. Zaf said he would tell anyone who came unannounced to his front door to fuck off.) A few days later, some of the U.S.-based members of my family gathered for a meal in Zaf’s house in the capital’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Just as I started compiling the names of Crestwood neighbors my mother remembered so that I could try to locate people online and over the phone, Zaf told me that he had a missed call from a Missouri number. “It’s Ken or Mona Priest, I bet.”

We called back right away, and a woman answered the phone. I introduced myself.

“Of course, I remember you, Hala and Zafo!” Mona began. “And I have such fond memories of your mother.”

Mona hadn’t found our note until several days after we left it in her wreath because she uses the back door, she said, to go in and out of the house. “I was changing my sunflower wreath in honor of Ukraine to my holiday wreath when I found your note.”

Mona’s husband Ken passed away in 2019, she said, and she had one more daughter after we left in 1973. She talked of supporting President Joe Biden and how St. Louis County largely votes Democrat. She spoke of her memories of my family, that my mother had given her a dress from Syria that she still had in her closet, but apologized for having to cut our conversation short: Her son was coming by to drive her to a basketball game that evening.

I was a bit disappointed. I had again hoped, irrationally perhaps, that Mona would reveal something that would help me understand my own identity. A girl born in America to Syrian parents, later raised in France, now living in London. A citizen of everywhere and nowhere. An outsider no matter where I lived. But what would Mona be able to tell me about myself? I felt silly for even having that thought.

But the next day, Mona called back. “I didn’t want you to get the wrong impression about Crestwood. We love it here. We have a great school, a great sense of community. There are a few neighbors who vote the opposite of me, but no one has shot me yet,” she said, laughing.

“Did you realize we were Syrian immigrants, and what were your feelings about that?” I asked.

“I remember being excited to meet you, and your mom taught us all about Syria. If I remember correctly, you were a Muslim family,” she said.

“Yes, we were,” I replied.

“But aren’t we all immigrants in a way?” she asked. I didn’t reply because I felt a knot in my throat and tears well up in my eyes. After a few seconds, Mona spoke again: “In the end, I just think we are all sleeping on God’s couch.”

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