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St. Louis celebrates immigrants but lags behind nation in immigration - Part 1

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2009 - If world travel isn't in the budget, get to know your neighbors.

With a little digging, you can find the world in St. Louis. Whether it's feasting on Eastern European fare in a Bevo Mill restaurant, salsa dancing at the Central West End's Club Viva, or grocery shopping at a Chinese supermarket on Olive Boulevard, you can take plenty of cross cultural trips without ever leaving town.

Festival of Nations

Come Saturday morning, Tower Grove Park will be buzzing with the dance, art, and food of more than 70 nationalities at the annual Festival of Nations, sponsored by the International Institute of St. Louis.

Whether you choose to take a mock U.S. citizen test, observe an Eritrean coffee ceremony, or dance to the Iranian fusion band Farshid and Friends, your sense of St. Louis' multicultural fabric is sure to expand.

"It feels like the world is there," says festival arts programming director Ann Rynearson.

With a projected attendance of more than 100,000, the feeling may be more of a reality at high points during the two-day celebration. The tall, leafy trees of Tower Grove promise to be prime real estate for picnickers, and shuttles will help offset traffic.

The festival serves several purposes for participants, says Rynearson. It encourages the continuation of ethnic traditions and arts, raises money for ethnic groups, and strengthens ethnic communities.

For everybody else, well, let's just say the 40 some odd food booths haven't been known to disappoint.

The myriad offerings are testament to the dedication and persistence of the city's relatively small foreign-born populations in carving out a little piece of home.

About 6 percent of all St. Louis city residents were born in another country, says Anna Crosslin, director of the International Institute of St. Louis. Not counting Spanish-speakers, foreign-born individuals in the city are a highly diverse group of refugees. In the city, Bosnians and Somalis represent the longest-standing groups. More recently, Iraqis, Nepales and Burundians have been resettled as well.

In the county, the main immigrant groups are Spanish and Chinese speakers; there is also a growing Bosnian population in South County.

While a walk through the international district on South Grand might lead you to believe otherwise, St. Louis' international population is disproportionately low when compared to other cities and the country at large.

The St. Louis area's "population is the 18th largest in the U.S., but 60th in terms of the number of foreign born," says Crosslin. It is 21st in terms of the percentage of refugees.

Nationally, 12 to 14 percent of the population is foreign born.

Crosslin attributes St. Louis' low immigrant numbers to a change in industries over the 19th and 20th century.

"Our heyday was the steamboat era," she says. "We didn't want the railroad so it went to Chicago. St. Louis settled and became a company town. The large companies thrived but we didn't attract new immigrants, many of whom were looking for entrepreneurial opportunities."

Demand for services such as interpretation and translation from the Institute have increased over the last several years, says Crosslin, which signals an up tick in non-native populations. Still, our numbers remain relatively low.

"To be a global community, we have to deal with and build the population of foreign born individuals," Crosslin says.

By not attracting people from other countries, the city could be missing out economically, she says.

For example, as Crosslin mentioned, foreign-born workers often bring entrepreneurship to an area. In 2007, a Duke University study showed that an estimated 25 percent of technology and engineering companies started between 1995 and 2005 had at least one foreign-born senior executive.

"Immigrants will create much of the wealth of this country through the businesses they started or will start," Crosslin says.

Additionally, resettled refugees invest in communities in terms of home and car ownership and other goods. Crosslin says that matched donations of $130,000 made by the Industrial Development Authority in 2008 resulted in $1.76 million worth of purchases in the local economy.

By raising awareness at events such as the Festival of Nations this weekend, the Institute hopes, in part, to open hearts and minds toward the foreign-born population, ultimately spreading the word that St. Louis is a friendly place for foreigners.

"They walk down the street here and nobody knows what their country is," says festival director Ann Rynearson of the feeling many non-native individuals have expressed to her. "We want people to know who they are and where they came from."

In the spirit of the festival, tomorrow's Beacon will have profiles of four St. Louis transplants: Alex Skroba, from Belarus; Salvador and Adela Esparza from Mexico; and Felix Cheung from Hong Kong. They will share their stories of coming to the city and their impressions thus far.

Anna Vitale is a freelance writer.