Picking up your roots in one country and moving to a land with different customs and language is a daunting prospect. That story is not unfamiliar to Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis.
“I am a Japanese American and have grown up with my foot in two cultures. So what I have done for a living has been very grounded in what my personal mission has been, which has been building bridges between two worlds,” Crosslin said.
For building those bridges over 37 years at the International Institute, the White House is honoring Crosslin as a Champion of Change. Crosslin is one of 10 individuals being recognized for “making a difference in the lives of refugees in the United States and abroad as World Refugee Day Champions of Change.”
Past champions include leaders in education, agriculture and transportation.
The ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Thursday follows World Refugee Day on June 20. In a statement President Barack Obama said the day honors "the resilience of those who flee violence and persecution and the dedication of those who help them."
Crosslin says she is honored by the award.
“Being named a Champion of Change for World Refugee Day is an enormous recognition, not just for me personally but for the work of the International Institute here in St. Louis.”
The International Institute serves about 7,500 immigrants and refugees. Their clients come from 80 different countries. As the largest sponsor of refugees in Missouri since 1979, the institute offers job training, counseling, language and citizenship classes.
Crosslin was nominated for the award by Betsy Cohen, director of the Mosaic Project, which promotes growth in the St. Louis region through immigration. Crosslin is one of the founders of the initiative.
Cohen says she was proud to nominate Crosslin for her work.
“She has the depth of knowledge,” Cohen said. “No one has the deep knowledge of foreign-born populations that Anna has ...She has been the source that people look to to guide their work with foreign-born people.”
Cohen says Crosslin’s work is central not only to St. Louis as a region but to the individuals who’ve crossed paths with her.
She has touched "the lives that people have created here and the business they’ve started and the families they’ve raised and the neighborhoods they have revitalized in this region,” Cohen said.
Mayor Francis Slay said Crosslin’s recognition is well deserved.
“She has really been a life saver for so many people,” Slay said. Crosslin makes sure that immigrants and refugees know that “regardless of their background, they have the opportunity to be an important and valued part of our city’s culture and future,” he added.
Crosslin’s profession is rooted in part in her personal experience. Crosslin came to the United States at age 2. Her father, who was in the U.S. Air Force, met and married her mother in Japan. When her mother arrived in the U.S., she spoke very little English. While Crosslin adjusted and learned the language, she said her mother struggled.
“As an adult she had more history that she had to pick up and learn, more expectations in terms of how she was supposed to act and behave,” Crosslin said.
Crosslin’s mother faced more challenge when Crosslin's American father died in a plane accident. Unable to drive and knowing little English, her mom embraced the American dream, Crosslin said.
“With the help of my American-born grandma. she ended up starting a restaurant and worked hard through her whole life and managed to put all of her children through college," Crosslin said.
“The role model that I had growing up was of a strong immigrant women who would do whatever she had to to ensure the future of her children,” Crosslin said. "And I see that over and over again in the people we serve. It reminds me that the story doesn't change, regardless of what the refugee background is of the particular family."
Of the nearly 60 million refugees and displaced people around the world, only a small fraction make it to the United States, said Crosslin. Those who do have fled horrible circumstances and living conditions.
“So when they get over here, they just take an enormous resilience and ability to push ahead and they just keep pushing and pushing and pushing,” Crosslin said. “And they don't just survive. but they eventually thrive.”