The International Institute at 100: Looking Back, Around and Ahead

 In Culture, Feature

The International Institute celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019, and it’s daunting to figure out where to start in telling its story. Empathy vs. economics? History vs. current events? Growth vs. contraction? Resilience vs. resources?

Anna Crosslin, the nonprofit’s president and CEO, starts her version of the story way back in the 1850s, when half of St. Louis’ population had come here from other countries, many by steamboat up the Mississippi River. But times changed as transportation routes switched to rail, and by 1919, following World War I, St. Louis had a smaller percentage of foreign-born residents—and much more anti-immigrant sentiment.

“It was an uncomfortable environment, not unlike the environment we have today,” Crosslin says. “The difference is that today there’s the ability for information to travel rapidly over the internet.”

In particular, there was a need for resettlement of women and children arriving in the United States as refugees from countries impacted by war. The National Board of the YWCA took the lead, founding International Institute locations coast to coast. In St. Louis, the founding board was made up of prominent women with deep roots in the community. Those served by the new initiative were mainly refugees from Eastern Europe, but there were also many immigrants from Mexico associated with the stockyards on the Illinois side of the river.

Anna Crosslin, CEO of the International Institute, speaks about impending Syrian refugee resettlement in 2015. Image by Wayne Crosslin.

During that time, the International Institute set up its first satellite office—a trend that continues today—which allowed it to target services where they were needed most. The first location was at 2338 S. Broadway, with south side and north side branches opening in 1923; later locations ranged from The Hill, where Italian immigrants settled during the 1930s, to most recently Springfield, Missouri, where a branch established in 2012 provides employment and resettlement services for refugees and asylees and their families.

In 1923, the local International Institute split off from the YWCA, which allowed it to expand the services it offered to include men. While the organization has always worked with refugees, its large-scale resettlement work—for which it is well known today—started in 1975, first with Vietnamese populations. More recently, in partnership with many other agencies and volunteer groups, it has helped thousands of Bosnians and hundreds of Syrian refugees integrate into the community.

“Interestingly enough, our mission statement throughout that whole 100 years has been relatively similar,” Crosslin says, speaking with the authority of one who’s led the organization for 41 years. It focuses on three goals: services to help newcomers adjust to the community; services to the community so integration is a two-way street; and education about democracy and self-reliance, so immigrants can engage and self-advocate—and eventually become citizens.

Volunteers deliver family presents as part of the 2015 Adopt a Family Holiday Program. Image by Wayne Crosslin.

Ongoing impact

Last year, 6,500 people from 80 countries received services from the International Institute. Some came as students. Some came for employment. Some were reunified with their families. And some were resettled here as refugees.

With so many reasons for immigration, there’s no one-size-fits-all program for services. Crosslin says English as a second language is the largest program, but there are also business loans to new arrivals who have a great business idea but who are without a credit history or collateral as well as soft-skills training and career-services path services to help highly skilled professionals get recertified here. On the community side, the institute offers dozens of events and presentations throughout the year, and it hosts the wildly popular Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park each August.

Although the International Institute employs around 85 people, many of its programs and services rely on volunteers—to the tune of 1,000 per year. Their contributions range from a few hours (a typical contribution for many of the 300 to 400 volunteers at the Festival of Nations) to ongoing, regular projects like the career-services path or literacy tutoring.

The International Institute at 100: Looking Back, Around and Ahead

Participants in the International Institute’s Elderly Refugee Program relax in Tower Grove Park, circa 2005. Image by Wayne Crosslin.

Crosslin says many of the volunteers share a similar background—they’ve often had an immersion experience in another country or traveled extensively. These individuals are key to the International Institute’s success here in Missouri, which is perhaps not as global as other locales around the nation. For instance, the state is on the low end for rates of U.S. passport issuance. “When you don’t travel, you don’t meet people who are different from you,” Crosslin explains. You tend to notice differences in language, clothing and food, all of which are at the top of the “cultural iceberg.” Under the water, you find shared values and behaviors like love of family, placing a value on education and appreciation for the right to vote. So Missourians can struggle with finding common ground – understanding the value of diversity and ways to overcome such differences to work together.

“If we want to create relationships, we have to drill down to the commonalities. And to do that, you need to get to know someone well,” she says. “In Missouri, including St. Louis, you have to work to meet and get to know people of other cultures because there are fewer of them than in other locations around the U.S.”

Personal connections

“When you look at the history of conflicts around the world, you find that St. Louis has had its share of immigrants over time, and they were always able to integrate into the community,” Crosslin says. One group she identifies with closely is the influx of wives of service members after the Korean War. This is when her own mother, Mieko “Mary” Peterson, arrived in the Seattle area. “My mother is a Japanese immigrant, and my father was a member of the U.S. military. He met my mother during the Korean War.”

“Growing up in a multicultural household, I’ve always had a personal connection with the challenges people have faced,” Crosslin continues. Her mother was widowed and then later divorced, leaving her with four young children to support. The work ethic that propelled her to start her own restaurant and put in 16-hour days to provide for her children’s well-being and education left a mark on Crosslin. “I really understand the immigrants’ mentality and drive in the face of what might seem to be overwhelming odds,” she says.

Her firsthand knowledge is one of the factors in her longevity as president and CEO of the International Institute. She started in 1978, at age 28, when the nonprofit had nine employees, including part-timers. “It had potential, and I had potential,” Crosslin recalls. “I learned what being a CEO was about on the job.”

Neighbors and friends rally on behalf of refugees on U.N. World Refugee Day 2018, sponsored by the International Institute. Image by Wayne Crosslin.

The next century

In the short term, Crosslin believes the number of refugees arriving in St. Louis will continue to be curtailed due to White House actions. But, she points out, the International Institute has been through downtimes before. For example, the Immigration Act of 1924 led to 40 years of severe immigration limitations. It wasn’t until 1965 that any significant number of Asians, Latin Americans and Africans were admitted to the U.S.

In 2016, 1,100 refugees came into St. Louis; in 2018, the number was 177, or 38 families. “The tragedy is that there are so many refugees who would benefit from being resettled,” Crosslin says. “And there is such a need in our community right now for the newcomers in terms of employees and cultural diversity. It’s sad from both sides.”

But Crosslin has an underlying optimism about the public’s attitude toward immigration. She feels more people understand the value immigrants bring in creating jobs as entrepreneurs, paying taxes, supporting the economy and expanding the worker base. “Immigrants are givers, and we gain by helping integrate them.”

She’s also excited about the possibilities technology offers for serving immigrants in other communities throughout Missouri and neighboring states. Smartphones, for example, are a way to reach people living in rural areas who could use help with the citizenship process.

From the earliest days of the International Institute, food has been a major attraction. The annual Festival of Nations now claims more than 40 food booths from around the world. Image by Roger Popwell.

And of course there’s the upcoming Festival of Nations, happening Aug. 24-25. The International Institute has coordinated a community celebration in each decade since its founding—starting within a year of opening its doors. The first iteration of the Festival of Nations happened in 1934, but the current one is by far the largest and most well known. The outpouring of support each summer provides continued motivation for thousands of immigrants and Americans by birth to continue to integrate and celebrate each other’s value.

“We need to be pragmatic,” Crosslin says, “and not buy into the current rhetoric that seeks to divide us.”

Featured image: The International Institute has been offering English classes since its inception in 1919. Image by Wayne Crosslin.

All images courtesy of the International Institute.

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