STL Mag Global connections: The metro region has a thriving international community.


For nearly a century, the International Institute has brought together hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe to celebrate and learn about its international community during the Festival of Nations. This weekend event transforms Tower Grove Park into an international bazaar with food stalls, small shops, and performances. Attendees can enjoy Afghan food while drinking a Mexican horchata and watching a Congolese drum performance. It’s the perfect example of the metro area’s international community.

Since 2014, there’s been a steady growth in St. Louis’ immigrant community, which is growing faster than those in other metro areas around the country. From 2017 to 2018, the international community—comprising immigrants, refugees, and temporary migrants and students—grew by 5,640. People have been migrating here for years: an influx of Germans after World War II, Bosnians in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Today, Indian, Mexican, and Chinese residents are the largest foreign-born populations in the area.

To outgoing International Institute president and CEO Anna Crosslin, St. Louis’ size is “both an asset and a deficit. Cities with larger foreign-born populations have demonstrated a different mix of skills and talents. We could benefit from more immigrants,” she says. “The asset is that for the immigrants who are here, there are many opportunities and perhaps less competition than they might find in an already dense immigrant area of the country.”

There are countless organizations and people working tirelessly to make St. Louis a welcoming place for its international population. The International Institute serves as the region’s main resource center, helping refugees resettle in St. Louis. Smaller organizations provide various forms of grassroots support, from supplies to dinners to English classes. And individuals are supporting immigrant-owned businesses, restaurants, and grocery stores.


Welcome Neighbor STL has been helping refugees and immigrants in the St. Louis region since 2016. The organization began with a toiletry drive and continues to evolve as the needs of immigrants and refugees change. Local refugee women prepare the Supper Club dinners, and the proceeds from ticket sales go directly back to their families. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the dinners brought together people to share meals from such countries as Syria and Burkina Faso while helping local refugee families. During the pandemic, the organization switched to drive-thru events. “It’s actually been a blessing in disguise,” says Jessica Bueler, founder and executive director of Welcome Neighbor STL. The organization has been able to increase the number of meals served at each event, which means more money for the refugee cooks. The events have been so popular, dinners are scheduled through April 2021 to share cuisine from Kurdistan, the United Arab Emirates, Congo, Morocco, and more.

Another group that provides support, the St. Louis International Spouses Meetup Group, was inspired by founder Susan Gobbo’s own experiences. When her husband was transferred to St. Louis for work, Gobbo had to leave behind her career as a physical therapist in Brazil. “I felt kind of lost, because your profession is part of your identity,” she says. “Every time I would go out, people would ask, ‘What do you do?’ or they would introduce me as my husband’s wife or Laura’s mom.” The experience made her feel isolated, and she knew there must be others who felt the same way, so she started the group. At first, finding attendees was a challenge. Some would RSVP but then cancel at the last minute. Gobbo later learned from a Russian woman who said she was nervous to attend because of the language barrier. Gobbo made the meet-ups more interactive; instead of meeting at a restaurant, where the emphasis would be on talking, they started visiting museums, libraries, festivals, and other events where conversation wouldn’t be the focus. The group now has 519 members from 77 countries.


Many other organizations across the region are helping immigrants improve their economic opportunities as well. Organizations such as the Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program and Oasis International provide personalized English instruction. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has been supporting Hispanic entrepreneurs and business owners in the St. Louis region for nearly 35 years, and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce was founded a decade ago to build a community of Asian professionals and attract investment.

Recognizing that immigrant growth is an important component of economic development, the St. Louis Mosaic Project has been working since 2013 to bring foreign-born populations to St. Louis. The organization strives to attract international students, connect immigrant entrepreneurs and resources, serve as a liaison between business and international communities, and reduce barriers that foreign workers and their families face.


International restaurant and retail establishments also provide a great way to learn about cultures while providing support. The eclectic international mix on South Grand offers a variety of cuisines, from Ethiopian at Meskerem to Vietnamese at Pho Grand to Lebanese at The Vine. Other streets are more region-specific. Cherokee Street, for instance, presents an array of Mexican cuisine, including such favorites as La Vallesana and Taqueria El Bronco; Olive Boulevard provides a taste of China with Lu Lu Seafood & Dim Sum and Mandarin House.

Specialty grocery stores such as Afghan Market, Baghdad Halal Market, Carnicería Latino Americana, Jay International Foods, and United Provisions provide an international market experience, with unique food items and other goods you can’t typically find in larger grocery stores. The variety of restaurants and grocery stores not only add cultural diversity to our region but also demonstrate the entrepreneurial spirit of the international community.

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