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International Institute Celebrates 95 Years Of Helping Immigrants Help St. Louis

Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio

The International Institute of St. Louis last week celebrated 95 years of helping immigrants. The anniversary comes just before the organization moves to its new location next month, the former St. Elizabeth Academy on Arsenal Street.

We spoke with Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the Institute, about the organization’s history and how its work has evolved to serve the changing needs of those it serves.

How has the International Institute changed over the last few decades?

“I don’t think that St. Louisans really have a comprehension of how long the International institute has been here. For decades upon decades, those of us who have been involved in the institute think of it as one of those quiet treasures in St. Louis. It’s really only been since the advent of modern refugees resettlements, which would have been 1975, that the institute emerged more visibly in the community. And then in 2000, when we started sponsoring the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park, a whole additional group of people started learning about us and started following what we do.”

What is your mission and how has it changed?

"What’s so interesting about the International Institute is that while it's 95 years old, its mission today is roughly the same as when it was founded. The words have changed a little bit here and there; butwhen we started, we had what I call a bifurcated mission, which is to help the newcomers adjust to their new communities and to foster cross-cultural understanding. Now, that is embodied in our mission statement, which is to help new Americans and their families be productive Americans and to champion ethnic diversity as a cultural and economic strength.”

What role do you see immigrant and refugee communities playing in the future of St. Louis ?

"A study was done by a former economist at SLU, Jack Strauss. It found that, across the board regardless of whether immigrants are high skilled or low skilled, that they all start businesses. In fact, they are 60 percent more likely to start a business than a native individual is. And because of that they create jobs. And that’s important on a couple levels. You look at what’s happening in St. Louis; and there aren’t a lot of jobs. But it’s not because there are too many people competing for them, but because there are not enough people here. There are not enough people here that are creating the needs for the goods and products that we want to be able to sell. So we have to raise the number of people here, to grow our community back up.”

What does this move mean for the Institute?

"We are actually going to move starting next month to a new facility. The reason is twofold. One is because we recognize that over the last 15 years in our current facility our rates of service have doubled. So we’ve gone from 3,500 immigrants a year that we are serving to 7,500 a year and our staffing has gone from about 50 to 85 and we are still in the same building. So we are just busting at the seams and we need more room.

"Then the opportunity became available for us to be able to purchase the former St. Elizabeth Academy, and it would provide us with the room for growth at this point -- not just for the services we offer but also new opportunities for the new immigrations we expect to arrive in St. Louis over the next few years. Those individuals are going to need the services we have already, but may need additional services to be able to fully integrate and quickly and then feel welcomed in the community and want to stay.

"One of the challenges we have in this city is that because we have so few immigrants, it is hard sometimes for immigrants to feel comfortable because of the lack of immigrant diversity. And that means many St. Louisans who’ve lived here forever haven’t had much contact with immigrants. So immigrants really benefit from having an opportunity to connect, and our new facility has a large gym that could be used as an ethnic community center so that they can hold their meetings and get together and have gatherings not just among their own community but also with American born people so they can learn to engage Americans. There is more at the facility than just the services we offer. Here it’s a way to actually create a welcoming environment for not just the immigrants but for St. Louis at large."