The Changing Face of St. Louis

Why new Americans settling here are the city’s last, best hope.
By Kevin M. Mitchell

It’s one of those precious few days of fall when recess can still be outside, and I’m standing on the school playground with my sister, Laurie Clark, and her kindergarten class. Stephanie rolls up on a tricycle and honors us with a song:

“I want to wish you a Merry Christmas, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas…”

When she’s done, she blurts: “I know another one!”

“I want to wish you a Merry Christmas, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas…”

But what Stephanie might lack in repertoire, she more than makes up in her language prowess. See, she could have just as easily sung the song known as Feliz Navidad in her first language, Spanish. She’s one of Laurie’s seven students (out of twenty-three–thus, 30 percent) who speaks a language other than English with her family. In addition to Stephanie, who is from Mexico, Clark has students from Bosnia, Vietnam, China, and Afghanistan.

But my sister teaches at Affton’s Meisner School, in traditionally homogeneous South County. “Oh, it was nothing like this,” she says of the diversity in her classroom compared to 15 years ago when she started. “Maybe there’d be one foreign-born child in a class once in a while, but now everybody has five or more.”

This anecdote is no anomaly. Bosnians get the headlines because of their numbers, but St. Louis had increases in almost every group from every continent in the last decade. The following groups have St. Louis organizations: Armenians, Bosnians, Chinese, Croatians, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Filipinos, Japanese, Lebanese, Laotians, Mexicans, Nigerians, Puerto Ricans, Thais, Ukrainians, and Vietnamese, among others.

A few groups congregate in specific neighborhoods: Vietnamese and Russians in the Tower Grove Park area, Bosnians in South City and, more recently, South County. But the vast majority almost immediately blend into the city.

Some longtime St. Louisans say there are too many. Professor Terry Jones, who teaches political science at the University of Missouri St. Louis, would disagree.

* * *

Studying census data for a book he’s cowriting on St. Louis’s future, Jones says the number of foreign-born new Americans in metropolitan St. Louis is now 1 out of 33–below the national average of 1 out of 7.

“Although the number of new Americans settling in St. Louis rose 65 percent between 1990 and 2000, they still represent just 3 percent of the region’s population,” Jones points out. “Thirty thousand foreign-borns made St. Louis their home in that decade, but Chicago attracted that many in the single year of 1998.”

Jones makes the case that a more diverse community transmits into a healthier economy, a more vibrant urban landscape, and a better quality of life for all of us. Homes are bought in declining neighborhoods and fixed up, and small businesses are started in strip malls that have seen better days. Ron Klutho agrees. As codirector of the Immigrant and Refugee Support Program at St. Pius, he tells the story of Vesna, who, after many years of menial jobs, just opened a bakery. Called The Sweet Life, it’s at Hampton and Chippewa–hardly what the Starbucks organization would consider prime real estate.

“Diversity is good–that’s my value statement,” Jones says. “You can disagree, but the people who share that opinion are typically those highly educated people in their 20s and 30s,” and thus the type St. Louis wants to attract. “They do not just want a community of steak houses and barbecue joints. They want Thai restaurants, Mexican food that’s authentic, different styles of music. They want to walk down the street and not just see white and black faces.”

Recent studies reveal St. Louis’s economic growth is stagnant, so when Jones maintains that it’s advantageous for the city to attract people with skills and energy, there’s no argument: “Immigrants provide this.”

He says what the census data shows is that the more foreign-born people a city has, the more it attracts, the more it announces that St. Louis is a good place to live and work and raise children. “How [new Americans] relate to others the experience they have here is key,” he says. “We now have almost 80,000 foreign-borns here, which is more of a magnet. So if we haven’t treated them well…”

So how do immigrants and refugees get here, and how are they treated?

* * *

“Immigrants come as part of a labor certification process,” explains Dr. Ann Rynearson, Senior Vice President and Division Director of International Institute St. Louis. “They have a talent we need, hence all the doctors and computer experts. Or they come as a relative to a citizen.”

The International Institute is responsible for the resettlement of refugees, a highly politicized process determined by the government. Each experience is unique depending on the person and the culture they come from, but while the Institute’s efforts go a long way, every new American inevitably has a jarring experience when first making St. Louis his or her home.

Ahmad Barekzai, a young man in his late 20s with piercing eyes, left Afghanistan with what remained of his family in 1993. He spent four years each in Pakistan and India before finally arriving in St. Louis in 2000.

“First of all, we hear things from relatives already here,” Barekzai says. “Kind of boasting–‘I have a car’–they never say how they got that car. Secondly, it sounds funny, but people get affected by Hollywood. You think America is Disney World and everyone lives like Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson.” Additionally, he says U.N. workers often tell refugees to leave all their belongings behind because they will be given everything new when they arrive.

So when Barekzai arrived here with his 70-year-old mother and two sisters (one schizophrenic, the other widowed with two children), the reality check was overwhelming.

“I couldn’t see anything but what I expected, and I was a person thinking that I deserved to come here and expected many things from the government,” he confesses. “The nice house, furnished, somebody to take me out and familiarize myself with the city… we came here to rest because we had already suffered enough.”

The Institute must indoctrinate people like Barekzai and do it quickly. They find them an apartment, start them on English classes, teach them how to use the bus line and grocery stores, and assess their health–mental and physical. All issues must be dealt with sensitively and with knowledge of cultural taboos. “We explain why we ask all the questions,” Vildana Basagic, a caseworker, explains. “You kind of have to be careful about mental health because a lot of cultures don’t acknowledge that. You have to curb it in things like, ‘Do you have problems with sleeping?’ It’s little things like that.”

“Honestly, the first time I came here I didn’t find St. Louis the way that I wanted to see it–it was my fault,” Barekzai says. “But the first thing I discovered was the public library, and the people talked to me, liked it, friendly, say ‘hi,’ and I was astonished.” He was in contact with others from his country who ended up in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., and at first he was a little envious–until cost-of-living statistics were compared.

“St. Louis is a good place [for refugees],” says Ariel Burgess, Vice President and Director of Social Services. “You can get a one-bedroom [apartment] for $300. We have entry-level manufacturing jobs. Private/public partnerships provide new Americans opportunities not found elsewhere.”

Barekzai agrees: “It’s a valuable lifestyle.”

Everyone starts on the bottom rung. Basagic tells the tale of a newly arrived professor of physics who, because he knows no English, will inevitably start work on an assembly line at a small manufacturing plant in the city. But many employers are willing–even enthusiastic–to hire these new St. Louisans. One is Jim Grant, who is Human Resource Director at the Sheraton Westport.

“We do have a number in maintenance, and about 20 in housekeeping,” Grant says. He says that hiring Institute clients has significantly reduced his turnover rate. “They are easy to train, and we have some that have progressed into leadership positions,” making a good, middle-class wage.

Luckier than many, Barekzai had a working knowledge of English when he arrived here, and eventually became a caseworker at the Institute himself. Now when other Afghanis come speaking Farsi, filled with images of Beverly Hills mansions and free TVs, he is on the front line explaining to them how it really is.

* * *

May Wu and her 18-month-old son, Rich, immigrated to the area when her husband was a graduate student in Southern Illinois.

“When I came to here, the language and lifestyle I could not get used to,” she says. Like the Lebanese who find sanctuary at St. Raymond’s and the Armenians at the Armenian Apostolic Church, Wu finds her church, the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, a bedrock of support. When she arrived here, she says it was the only Chinese house of worship in St. Louis. Today there are a total of six, including Catholic, Baptist, Christian, and Buddhist denominations serving an estimated 30,000 Chinese.

“I feel St. Louis are very friendly,” she says. “Even the people at the supermarket are so friendly. Sometimes they know we are not good at English yet, and they are very helpful.”

Today she is director of the St. Louis Chinese American News. Founded in 1990, the newspaper prints 6,000 copies and has an on-line edition. “We publish in English too so our American friends can understand what’s going on in our community. Also for the younger generation, the second generation, who don’t know Cantonese very well.”

The Wus speak Chinese in their home, but their son often answers in English. “For us it is very hard for us to keep our culture. When we talk to him in Chinese he usually answers us in English.”

Despite the large Chinese population, individuals assimilate into different areas, as opposed to claiming a specific neighborhood. Immigrants naturally will tend to live where their family, friends, or relatives live. Refugees become noticeable in an area in South City usually because it’s near the location of the Institute, South Grand. After all, someone has to find these people places to live.

* * *

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and I’m crawling into a 1982 rusted blue Ford pickup with a dashboard that may or may not fall off in the not too distant future. I’m with Suzanne LeLaurin, an Institute Vice President, and we’re going to the airport to pick up a family of three from Afghanistan. The driver of the beloved vehicle goes by Sam, but his name is Semere Desu.

Desu is a refugee from Eritrea, a spot in Africa I had to look up (it’s a sliver near Ethiopia). He arrived here as a 17-year-old the year after this truck was made, and like Barekzai, came with siblings and his mother. He, too, found his treatment from other St. Louisans good.

“I only got in trouble once!” he says with an infectious laugh. “This guy stole my bicycle off my back porch and I smacked him. Soon the police came. In my country, someone steals your bike, you hit them. You don’t call the police, because they never come.”

It’s his job to find apartments for new clients, and today he’s pleased with himself because he found a nice one-bedroom for $360. It’s two blocks from the Institute and near other Afghanis, although he’s more interested in finding deals than grouping people together. There are catches for the landlord: no deposits, no signed lease. Problems? Of course. But they tend to be cultural. One complained that a new American was hanging his clothes to dry off his front porch (back is fine).

We’re in post-9/11 airport hell. Waiting for the family at the gate is out of the question. We have to hope they figure out how to work their way through the tunnels of Lambert without help. Barekzai paces, and I ask LeLaurin about discrimination.

“Do landlords say ‘no’ to us? Oh, yeah, every day,” LeLaurin says. She tells the story of one landlord who was interested in taking clients from the Institute but added a “no blacks” stipulation with the adjunct of “of course I’m fine with it, but the other tenants….” LeLaurin rolls her eyes at this story. “We’re like, ‘Then sorry, we can’t do business with you.’”

It’s 40 minutes after the flight has landed, and Barekzai, who has met us there, is about to lay his trump card. This is when he goes to the airport authorities and pages the new St. Louisans in Farsi. He’s surely as nervous as those who have just landed, and equally as glad when he finally spots them. They look relieved and greet us with a smile.

But all drop their smiles quickly. There are eight people, not three. Two families. Are they connecting somewhere else? No. Is the family of five with one of the Catholic agencies? No.

Cell phones fly out. First, we need more transportation. The second family is asked to show papers–something they associate as a bad thing. But they are quickly comforted, as the Institute group assures them that it’s not their fault.

Hours later, Barekzai patiently takes the family of three through their new home while Desu furiously tries to chase down another apartment.

“Many of us arrived in St. Louis in the late 19th Century, so there are still stories told about how great-grandfather struggled,” Jones had told me. “We’re the results of those success stories. What makes us think we can’t have more of those?”

Barekzai is handing the woman and her two teenage boys the keys. She smiles and signals for a pen. I volunteer mine. Maybe she’ll use it to start her story. I hope for our sake it’s a good one.

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