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Ambassadors aim to soften rough landing for St. Louis immigrants

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon - When Cileia Miranda-Yuen first came to St. Louis from Brazil in 1999 to pursue a master’s degree at Webster University, her initial reaction to the area was less than positive.

“The first year I was here, I couldn’t wait to find a way out,” said the 47-year-old Clayton resident. “I was really not happy. I didn’t feel embraced. I felt judged.”

Eventually, Miranda-Yuen, a consultant who became a citizen in 2005, found a more accepting side of the city as she became increasingly involved with community activities. But preventing an initial negative experience has become a major aim of the St. Louis Mosaic Project, which is working to place volunteer “ambassadors” in the community to help smooth the sometimes rocky path that immigrants often face here.

Launched in June, Mosaic represents a larger effort by the region to attract and retain immigrants in a bid to boost the area’s entrepreneurial culture. The recent Economic Impact of Immigration on St. Louisreport has shown that foreign-born residents are 60 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than the native population, more than twice as likely to have an advanced degree, and three times as likely to be highly skilled.

An orientation session for ambassadors is set for Tuesday evening, Nov. 12, at the World Trade Center. Project director, Betsy Cohen, said response to the call for volunteers has been overwhelming.

“I thought we might get 50 -100 and we actually have 220 who have signed up to be Mosaic ambassadors,” she said. “It’s extremely exciting that we have that many people who want to help us make this a more welcoming community.”

About 100 participants are expected to show up for this week’s event. Volunteers are expected to share information about Mosaic, visit three international restaurants to support local entrepreneurs and make a donation to one of several local organizations that support immigrants. Other expectations include a visit to the International Institute of St. Louis, sharing knowledge about St. Louis or the ambassador’s home country with others and inviting an immigrant for dinner or coffee at one’s home.

Cohen said the effort aims to make the Gateway City a warmer environment for those from foreign lands.

“What we understand from our community members is that St. Louis people are helpful but not welcoming,” she said. “You show that you are welcoming to somebody not because you wave at them at your PTO or in your neighborhood or at work. You invite them for coffee so you can learn about them and they can learn about you.”

Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute, said that she’s been impressed by the response to the program. Immigrants, she noted, can sometimes feel left out in a city dominated by those who grew up here.

“One of the challenges in a region like St. Louis is we have very few foreign-born – about 4.5 percent,” she said. “That means many of the people here have always lived here. One of the big challenges to overcome is to help them to get engaged with and get connected with people who are not from here.”

Ballwin resident Ann Bauer said she looks forward to participating in the program. As an adoptive mother of two Romanian children, the 61-year-old knows that those from other nations can face difficulties in the U.S.

“They are challenged to try and fit in and yet maintain some of who they are and not completely try to fit into the type of city or community they’ve moved into,” she said.

Bauer is a small business consultant who spent time studying in China while in the executive MBA program at Washington University. She feels immigrants are often deeply motivated, have a strong work ethic and take little for granted.

“I hope to learn more about the international community and how it can help the city and county grow,” she said. “We need that. We need economic development. That’s a good population to help us do that.”

David Pham, 28, a business support specialist at Edward Jones, said he thinks St. Louis can improve its approach to immigrants.

“I feel like we as a community are very friendly compared to others, such as on the East Coast. We have a Midwestern culture where you are a lot more open and you always greet people with a smile,” he said. “That’s good." But, he added, "there are many resources but not a centralized resource where an immigrant can go and learn more about a community or feel welcome.”

Like a number of volunteer ambassadors at Mosaic, Pham is an immigrant himself, having arrived here from Vietnam as a teenager. The University City resident said that adjusting to life in America could be tough, even with family already here to help. He hopes to assist immigrants with networking opportunities.

“It was a big culture shock coming over here, not knowing what to expect, how to make friends and all of that,” he said. “Because of the different groups that I’m in and being an immigrant myself, I can share my stories about how my family and I adjusted to being over here.”

The ambassadors initiative is just one of several programs initiated by Mosaic since its inception. Cohen said that other programs include a soon-to-be-launched Professional Connectors project patterned after a program in Canada where 20 locals well-connected in a field meet for coffee with a foreign-born individual from their specialty.

The project has also worked with the Regional Business Council, which created a mentor network where university students are paired with professionals. Of 140 in the program, Mosaic helped select the 11 international participants.

“We’re working with several programs on retaining more of our international students,” she said. “That’s another area that’s a big challenge for all regions because of immigration and visa issues.”

Miranda-Yuen was once an international student herself. She said she is happy to give back to the community she now calls home by volunteering as an ambassador. Despite her difficult introduction to St. Louis, she eventually found a more welcoming side to the city.

“People got to know me. As I developed relationships with more people, I felt more engaged, more embraced,” she said. “It showed me another aspect of St. Louis that as a new immigrant, the first year, I had no idea existed.”

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.