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Fast-growing Indian community drawn to St. Louis by its welcoming spirit

Hemin Dalel, far right, enjoyed listening to Indian musician Ricky Kej at the Festival of Nations on Aug. 27 at Tower Grove Park in St. Louis with friends and family. Dalel moved to the St. Louis region in 2018 for work and loves that the area makes people from India feel welcome.
Andrea Y. Henderson
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St. Louis Public Radio
Hemin Dalal, far right, with friends and family at the Festival of Nations on Aug. 27 at Tower Grove Park in St. Louis, where Indian musician Ricky Kej played. Dalal moved to the St. Louis region in 2018 for work and loves that the area makes people from India feel welcome.

Hemin Dalal attends as many festivals and Indian cultural events in the St. Louis region as he can, because he misses his homeland.

A native of Gujarat, India, Dalal came to the United States in 2015 to study at Cleveland State University.

He moved to O’Fallon, Missouri, in 2018 to take an engineering job at MasterCard and soon looked for Indian restaurants and hotspots to meet others from India.

“I am at the age where I want to have a family,” said Dalal, 30. “It’s a good place to get settled in.”

Dalal has plenty of company. He is among a growing number of people from India who are moving to the St. Louis region for jobs or to obtain a degree. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 17,842 people living in the area from India in 2021, up from 11,230 about a decade earlier. The Indian population is now the region’s fastest-growing group and has surpassed the Mexican population.

“The majority of them come here to St. Louis because of some of the Fortune 500 businesses that are in St. Louis that are really hiring, particularly in the IT field, that India as a country has really made that their craft,” said Arrey Obenson, president of the International Institute of St. Louis.

Census data suggest that the foreign-born Indian population in St. Louis will continue to increase, said Ness Sandoval, a professor of sociology and demography at St. Louis University.

“We projected this about a decade ago,” he said. “I think this is a permanent trend, that the Indian foreign-born population will be the largest immigrant population, at least in the short term here for the next five to 10 years in the St. Louis metropolitan region.”

Sandoval said St. Louis is one of 15 U.S. cities experiencing an increase in people immigrating from India. St. Louis also is in competition with other cities that have initiatives that entice immigrants to move to their cities.

Cities along Interstate 270 have fast-growing Indian communities. Many Indian immigrants are moving to Maryland Heights, Chesterfield and Town and Country to be closer to their jobs at major corporations or headquarters in the area.

Although Dalal lives in St. Louis County, he said the cultural events keep him in St. Louis, since he does not have any family members nearby. He invites friends and family from other cities to enjoy the region’s special events with him and tries to convince them to consider moving to the region. He said it is his outgoing demeanor that has helped him find his community.

“As soon as I moved here, I mingled with people from my region and other regions of India. I was going to events … and getting involved,” Dalal said.

This summer, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones created the Office of New Americans to help reduce barriers for the city’s refugees and immigrants. The office will connect people from other countries to city services and departments, economic development opportunities and housing.

Obenson said city officials know it is a challenge to keep people from India in St. Louis; most of them move to St. Louis County. He hopes the Office of New Americans can create more opportunities for Indian immigrants to interact in the city.

‘A long time coming’

In 2000, Aarti Sharma moved to St. Louis from New Delhi, India, to work in the information technology department at MasterCard. She did not know a soul in the area, and living in a new place was rough at first.

Aarti Sharma, right, moved to St. Louis from New Delhi, India, in 2000 for work. She said the early years in St. Louis was rough, because the city didn't have much to offer that reminded her of home. However, now she enjoys cultural outings with her husband and performing Punjabi folk dances and Bollywood numbers with her dance troupe all over the region.
Aarti Sharma
Aarti Sharma, right, moved to St. Louis from New Delhi, India, in 2000 for work. She said the early years in St. Louis was rough, because the city didn't have much to offer that reminded her of home. However, now she enjoys cultural outings with her husband and performing Punjabi folk dances and Bollywood numbers with her dance troupe all over the region.

“When I started at MasterCard, there was another Indian person in the office, but I was the only Indian woman in my whole department,” she said.

During her first week in St. Louis, a taxi driver told her that she could find more people from India in Maryland Heights. Immediately, she found a few Indian grocery stores, where she wanted to live and temples. But Sharma said that was not enough to remind her of home.

“At that time, the Indian population was still not a lot in St. Louis in 2000, so some of the items that we are very used to using back home, it was hard to get them here,” she said. “When our parents would travel, or somebody would be coming from India, we would tell them, ‘Hey, can you bring this from India for us?’”

Sharma is grateful for the incremental steps city and county leaders and organizers have taken to make people from India feel welcome.

Sharma said the region has been good to her over the past 20 years. She met her husband in St. Louis, started a family and is flourishing in her career at MasterCard, where she is now vice president of business operations.

Sharma enjoys attending cultural shows at local theaters and event spaces with her family. To give back to the city that welcomed her, she helps nonprofit organizations support the community by volunteering at food drives and helping to find shelter for people in need.

‘A welcoming culture’

Sneha Rajan calls St. Louis home now, though she has only been in the area for two years. Rajan is from Kerala, India, and moved to Sunset Hills after arriving from the United Arab Emirates with her family.

While settling in, Rajan swiftly implanted herself with the community, partly because of her jobs as the Indian Outreach Coordinator for the St. Louis Mosaic Project and a community college professor.

St. Louisans are kind people, which makes the region an ideal place for immigrants to start a new life, she said.

“When you come here as a new person, there can be a culture that is resistant to immigrants or new people, or there can be a culture that is very welcoming,” Rajan said. “And here so loudly and clearly, there's a welcoming culture.”

Sneha Rajin moved to St. Louis from the United Arab Emirates two years ago with her family. The Kerala, Indi
Sneha Rajan
Sneha Rajan moved to St. Louis from the United Arab Emirates two years ago with her family. The Kerala, India, native is dedicated to assisting Indian students who are studying in St. Louis and other Indian immigrants get settled in the area to help keep them in the region.

Rajan has lived in a few countries and other parts of the U.S., but she said none of those places compares to St. Louis.

“We've lived in other parts, and it's so hard to get to a park and it's so hard to get to events or even afford events, but here most of the events are for families, and they are free,” she said.

Rajan is thankful to be in a region that supports immigrants, and to show her appreciation, she is dedicated to assisting the local Indian student population by connecting them to immigrant resources. She wants to help keep them in the area.

“When they [immigrants] set up a business here that helps the local community — especially all these people with STEM degrees — when they set up companies here, that creates jobs and that can uplift the local community," Rajan said.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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