St. Louis refugee becomes widow, mother

Friday, July 19, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:01 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 19, 2013
In this July 11 photo, Susila Rai, 24, rocks her baby Rachel Rai at the home of Gullar Sulyeva in south St. Louis. Susila Rae's husband, Mon Rai, was killed while working the night shift at a 7-Eleven in south St. Louis. Mon Rai came to St. Louis with his wife and their son, Sujal, in September 2012 from Bhutan. Six months earlier, his parents, brother and sister arrived here.

ST. LOUIS — Susila Rai sits on the living room floor, gently rocking the baby bouncer seat holding her sleeping month-old daughter.

The little girl's grandmother stands nearby, talking about how pretty the new family addition is. How she wants to help make little Rachel grow into a great person, someone just as wonderful and sweet and loving as the little girl's father, Mon Rai.

Mon Rai's excitement about having a daughter, a child born in the United States, had escalated as her birth grew nearer. As much as he loved his first American job, working as a clerk at a nearby 7-Eleven, he had told his manager June 10 would be his last overnight shift for a while so he could spend time with his wife and their new child.

About 12:30 a.m. that night, a gunman walked into the store and fatally shot Rai, 30, a Bhutanese refugee who moved to St. Louis in September.

A month after the shooting, his killer remains at large. Police have few leads. Rai's family is unsure whether St. Louis will remain their home, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

Seven days after Mon Rai was killed, Rachel was born. It was a name Mon wanted for his daughter, a biblical name that in Nepalese is Rayl.

The Rais had spent years living in a refugee camp in Nepal. They, like thousands of people from Bhutan, were forced to flee the country over cultural and religious differences. Mon's dream was to move to the United States and build a new life with his young family, confident it would be better than the camp where he spent two-thirds of his life, with little food, no toilets and poor medical care.

Susila, 24, knows little English, but when she hears a reporter ask about Mon, she drops her head suddenly and says something in Nepalese to her brother-in-law, Som Rai.

"It's very hard for her," Som says, as Susila turns away to wipe her eyes. The clothes he used to wear, the dumbbells he worked out with, the mattress he slept on all serve as reminders that he is gone, said Som, 25.

And of course, so does the little girl, swaddled in a pink blanket, stirring slightly from an afternoon nap.

Mon and Susila Rai moved to St. Louis with their son, Sujal, 8, in 2012, six months after Mon's parents, brother and sister arrived here.

They all lived together in the upstairs apartment of a duplex in the 3800 block of Dunnica Avenue, a quiet street filled with multifamily dwellings, many occupied by refugees from around the world.

The Rai family spends much of their time next door, in the apartment of Gullar Sulyeva, a Turkish immigrant who lives with her husband and their two youngest daughters. It's where Sulyeva babysits her 2-year-old grandson and where Susila comes to get away from the constant reminders of her late husband.

"This makes her feel better," said Sulyeva, 42.

For Som, his role in the family has deepened with the death of his brother.

"It's quite different," said Som, who works as a night porter at River City Casino. "I'm forced to look after my family. That's quite hard for me because I never did it before."

His new family responsibilities include helping watch over his nephew, Sujal, who doesn't understand that his father is not coming back to take him across the street to play soccer in Amberg Park.

Sajal has taken to the role of big brother quite naturally. He hugs his sister often and is protective of her, Susila explains with gestures and limited English.

Som said his mother, Harka, 52, like the rest of the family, remained terrified for days after the killing.

"Mom was quite afraid they would come after us too," Som said.

He said an aunt and uncle and their three children were going through the refugee resettlement process now, set to arrive in St. Louis later this year. When they do get here, the family as a whole will decide what's next. Most likely, it will be a move to Chicago, where Som and Mon's older brother lives.

Som's father, Ajir, 62, has battled health problems since his arrival, suffering from high blood pressure and severe allergies. Mon would have been the one to shuttle his father to the hospital. That job has now fallen to Som.

Som said his father continued to struggle with the death. Ever since Mon got his job at the 7-Eleven in late December, his father would sit at the front window each morning, watching for his son to arrive home from his overnight shift.

It's a habit his father has continued.

"Something has happened with his mind," Som said of his father. "Thinking that he may still come."

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