ST. LOUIS — Splashes of color reflect back from the other side of a glass window to the beginning English class at the International Institute in St. Louis: red bindi dots on the foreheads of women from Nepal, one who wears a red and white cap on her head, and assorted gold, brown and blue prints worn by women from Somalia and the Congo, who sit at two other tables, their heads covered by hijabs and scarves.
Across the hallway, another classroom is filled with more men and women, these dressed in assorted, more mainstream clothing, one man wearing a black cap with the word "Chicago" emblazoned across the front.
These are just two classes on the main level of the International Institute in St. Louis, where new immigrants and refugees learn how to become acclimated to the United States, how to understand or improve their English, find jobs or access other services. For almost 100 years, this institute has helped immigrants and refugees settle into this country. Staff call the facility a "Welcoming Center for New Americans."
On Wednesday, nine students from Southern Illinois University law professor Cindy Buys' law class visited the center, to see first-hand the services offered to these immigrants and refugees.
"This is the first time that I have taught this standalone class on asylum and refugee law," Buys explained the day after her class' visit.
"My point in taking the students to the refugee resettlement center was really to give them a sense of what's happening on the ground, right now, to get a sense of how does the refugee resettlement process works in the United States, what kind of services are provided to them. We can look at statistics online about where they come from, but I think it's different when you see it in person."
Her main job is at SIU, but she manages to do one to two pro bono asylum cases a year, she said. Part of Thursday's class assignment was to take notes on a 2010 interview she conducted on a man who successfully sought asylum in the United States.
She noted the distinction between immigrants and refugees, noting that the latter is a person who is fleeing their home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution, based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
About the International Institute of St. Louis
The International Institute of St. Louis serves both immigrant and refugee populations.
The organization was founded in 1919 by the Young Women's Christian Association, which had already established similar centers elsewhere. Eventually, the International Institute of St. Louis separated from the YWCA.
In 2019, the institute plans to celebrate 100 years of serving immigrants and refugees.
Two years ago, the Institute enlarged its reach, relocating from a 30,000-square foot space into a 130,000-square-foot space in St. Louis' Tower Grover East neighborhood, on a block with two-story townhouses and an occasional yard sign welcoming the newcomers. That space previously housed an all-girls schools operated by the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood.
This past year, the institute provided services to 8,149 people, some 1,158 of whom were refugees, according to Kelly Moore, the center's external relations manager.
The International Institute of St. Louis runs on a nearly $7 million budget, providing services that range from health and mental health services; education, particularly English-language classes; job-preparation and readiness and employment information; and entrepreneurial services. A telephone voice recording directs those wanting to hire an immigrant to make a selection from the outgoing message system.
The vast majority of the refugees served at this center come from four major countries: Syria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. This past year, the institute served 1,115 refugees, the bulk from Syria (279), Somalia (211), the Congo (190) and Iraq (150).
Moore said the center is already feeling the impact of the Trump Administration's decision to scale down, to 50,000 to 70,000, the number of refugees allowed into this country. Former President Barack Obama, in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, had increased to 100,000 the number of refugees a year allowed into this country.
"(We're seeing an) "extremely low numbers of arrivals," Moore said. "(Over) the next four or five months, we only expect 100 in total."
It is not known if any IISTL-affiliated immigrants and refugees have relocated into Southern Illinois, but at least one Kurdish immigrant, who claims to be fleeing persecution from ISIS, is being supported financially by CAIRS — the Carbondale Area Interfaith Refugee Support — and other local organizations, according to Father Bob Flannery, head of St. Francis Xavier Church in Carbondale. Flannery has also toured the center.
How the students were impacted
Back at their summer class at SIU, the students shared about their experience at the center. Several expressed regret that they were not able to talk to some of the immigrants or refugees to hear their personal stories, up-close.
At least three of Buys' students said they could see themselves working with immigrant and refugee populations; John Wagener, with a Hispanic population back in his hometown of Tulsa and Sheena Hart, perhaps through later volunteerism with the Institute.
Fellow student Amanda Lesinski said she took the class as a direct result of Trump's travel ban to Muslim countries. In an email to The Southern, she wrote that she plans to return to Corpus Christi, Texas — a town about 150 miles from the Mexico border — to practice law and offer pro bono help for asylum seekers fearing persecution from drug cartels and drug traffickers.
"In 2013, only 2.3 percent of Mexican asylum applications were granted," Lesinski wrote. "This number is in sharp contrast to approved applications from other countries."
"As a law student, when I read the Executive Order, I understood the legal ramifications for individuals who were caught up in the travel ban," Lesinski wrote. "It warmed my heart to see so many attorneys show up at international airports to file emergency briefs."
"Most of us enter the legal profession because we enjoy helping people and we want to protect the rights of all citizens — regardless of whether they were born in the United States or whether they obtained citizenship through another channel," she wrote. " … Immigration shouldn’t be political — it should be based on morals and doing what we can for others."