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Bilingual International’s senior center reunites after two years of separation

Senior Net Huynh stands with her group leader Anna Nguyen at Bilingual International's annual senior picnic on Saturday.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Senior Net Huynh stands with her group leader Anna Nguyen at Bilingual International's annual senior picnic on Saturday.

Missouri’s only senior center devoted to immigrants and refugees resumed its popular senior groups last month.

St. Louis-based Bilingual International runs the Macklind International Senior Center, which was forced to halt operations when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now, elderly immigrants and refugees are reuniting after two years apart. The center hosts get-togethers for older adults from Albania, China, Vietnam and several African countries.

“The idea of the old ethnic neighborhood where all the seniors hang out of the windows and talk to each other — that doesn't really exist in St. Louis. You have people scattered all over the city and county, and this is a place where they can come together as a peer group and speak their native language,” said Bilingual International’s Executive Director Jason Baker.

Before the pandemic, around 250 seniors met in ethnic groups every week at the Macklind Senior Center. Since resuming in April, around 120 have returned.

Producer Kayla Drake reports from the senior center's picnic in Tower Grove Park

“Being able to have a space that's theirs, that they can more or less take over for one day a week, every week, has been huge,” Baker said. “They kind of self direct the programming and celebrate communal birthdays and holidays at the senior center. We've even got people that skip vacations with their family because that interferes with their senior center day.”

Most older adults at the center do not speak much English. Bilingual International helps them study for citizenship tests, translate important letters and communicate with their physicians.

The pandemic not only presented a barrier to essential services for immigrant seniors, but also left them vulnerable to isolation. 78-year-old Fuhai Bian left China in 2011. He’s been part of the Mandarin senior group for nearly a decade.

“It’s almost like a second home for me,” he said in Mandarin. “I have someone to rely on, rather than being isolated. Seniors, especially immigrant seniors, have to rely on people.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.