International Institute serves up 'first Thanksgiving' for new refugees in St. Louis | St. Louis Public Radio

International Institute serves up 'first Thanksgiving' for new refugees in St. Louis

Nov 22, 2016

Updated Nov. 23 with corrected numbers – Thanksgiving came a little early for hundreds of refugees and immigrants who gathered for a meal with all the trimmings Tuesday afternoon at the International Institute in St. Louis.

The Institute, which serves as the region’s “Welcoming Center for New Americans,” said it has served more than 1,000 new refugees in the last year, from countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Iraq.

“We’re pleased that it’s an all-American holiday that has meaning all around the world,” said President and CEO Anna Crosslin.

She said the Thanksgiving event, held off and on for about 25 years, is an opportunity to give thanks “for the individuals themselves who have come over here and may have been in really awful circumstances the year before.”

“But it’s also an opportunity for the community to reach out and welcome them,” she said.

The event, featuring a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land,” comes on the heels of the presidential election of Donald Trump, whose campaign promises included suspending the Syrian refugee program and banning immigration from countries that appear to harbor terrorists.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the campaign rhetoric makes this year’s Thanksgiving event for refugees in St. Louis that much more important. He said he is “proud” of the city for stepping up and standing with refugees.

Hundreds of refugees and immigrants gathered to celebrate their first Thanksgiving meals in the U.S. at the International Institute of St. Louis' cafeteria on Tuesday.
Credit Hannah Westerman | St. Louis Public Radio

“This is a very special year because what we’re seeing is a lot of demagoguing of what should be very important for us,” he said. “This is a matter of human dignity and human respect and love for our human brothers and sisters around the world.”

Slay said many in the crowd were like his grandparents, who also were Syrian (Lebanese) refugees: people with potential looking to create a better life and contribute to their new community.

“These are families that are coming from a war-torn country. They are looking for a good place to bring their families and I know that there’s a lot of controversy about that, mainly because there’s a lot of misinformation about what’s going on and the impact of these lovely families coming to our city.”

Crosslin said it is too soon to know what policies President-elect Trump and his new Cabinet members might pursue. She said events like the Thanksgiving gathering are always important to show refugees and immigrants they are welcome.

“Well, obviously people are always concerned when they hear heightened rhetoric, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric,” she said. “But America has been historically anti-immigrant and anti-refugee for hundreds of years, at least a portion of it has been. So there is a very positive part of the community that reaches out and wants to be able to welcome them, so we hope that there’s balance to those remarks.”

Crosslin said the International Institute sponsored 271 Syrian refugees, among 1,024 total refugees, in St. Louis last year. As St. Louis Public Radio has previously reported, the year prior, 39 Syrian refugees  100 from Iraq and more from Bhutan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo moved to the St. Louis region, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement

An earlier version of this story included incorrect totals for refugees settled in St. Louis by year. This story has been updated to reflect the right numbers.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @stephlecci