Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis, notes that St. Louis can be particularly daunting to a nonnative. She’s struck by the homegrown St. Louisans: people who have grown up here in families that have always lived here, and still have friends from high school. “That’s very off-putting to people who come from other places, because they don’t have that same sense of community and they’re looking for ways to be invited in. It’s not that St. Louisans are being mean or anything. They just don’t think about it.” In 1850, the city had a population that was around 50% foreign-born. Today, Crosslin says, the foreign-born population here is only about 4.5%.
When Crosslin was instated as director of the International Institute 36 years ago in 1978, it had a total of nine employees. After she’d been at the organization for a year, President Jimmy Carter announced the resettling 121,000 Vietnamese residents, which marked the beginning of modern-day refugee resettlement in the U.S. Today, the International Institute houses between 75 and 80 employees and provides resettlement services to around 7,500 immigrants and refugees each year from 75 different countries. The Institute’s resources help immigrants learn English as a second language, find housing, secure loans to open new businesses, and provide them with a community center.
“I’m passionate about the subject of multiculturalism because of my own background and my own personal story,” says Crosslin, a soft-spoken woman who has a soothing, motherly voice and wears her hair in a short bob with trimmed bangs. Born in Tokyo, she came to the U.S. when she was two and a half. Her mother, a Japanese immigrant turned U.S. citizen, moved to the U.S. to be with Crosslin’s American-born father, who was in the Air Force during the Korean War. “That dates me and tells people how old I really am.” Much like her mother, she had to adjust to living with a foot in two cultural worlds, as she calls it.
Her office is covered in weathered family photographs, stacks of papers, writing utensils, and an array of trinkets. There’s a white mug with different translations of “Thank You” from all over the world, a bottle of moisturizer, and a glass plaque engraved with the words: “St. Louis Business Journal Class of 2013 Most Influential Business Women,” with her name and a posed portrait photograph. Soon she’ll have to relocate all of it, as the International Institute is preparing to move to a new, larger location on Arsenal. They recently spent $4 million to purchase and update what was formerly a private, all-girls high school. The Institute also hosts the annual Festival of Nations, one of the city’s most diverse cultural events featuring authentic cuisine, art, dance, and events from hundreds of different countries. St. Louis has enthusiastically embraced the event, which sees a turnout of around 140,000 people each year.
Crosslin says the difficulties immigrants face depend on how much English they know, how well they understand the culture, and if they’ve previously lived or worked alongside Americans. But some have also spent generations living in refugee camps, waiting. “The Burundians that we resettled several years ago–it wasn’t just their father, it was a grandfather who had entered the camp in 1972 as a result of the civil wars then,” she remembers. Worse, not everyone is allowed to leave. Many immigrants coming to the International Institute have to leave family members in their home countries behind. “It’s very tragic for them,” says Crosslin.
When she was seven years old, the Air Force reassigned Crosslin’s father to Japan. He flew back ahead of time to arrange housing, and the rest of the family was scheduled to join him–they’d planned to be there for at least two years. But his plane crashed at sea, and everyone on board was killed. A search for the wreckage ensued–one of the largest that had occurred at the time, Crosslin was told. It was never recovered. “My mom found herself, at that point, a widow with two young children and she didn’t even know how to drive yet,” she says. She pauses for a moment and looks out at the second-floor lobby. Her eye catches a few brightly colored English-language children’s books sitting on a table in the middle of the room. “I missed him,” she says. “He was, in many ways, a balancing act to other kinds of personalities that were in the household. Sometimes I think, ‘What would my world have been like had he lived?’”
Eventually her mother remarried and had two more children, but later divorced. Crosslin still has memories of her stepfather from when she was young. “He did father-like things. He went to, you know, parent-teacher meetings or father-daughter banquets with me. Things like that.” It wasn’t a lonely upbringing, she says. It armed her with perspective about what many immigrants and refugees go through. Serving them is a duty she takes very seriously. “It gave me a perspective about what it must be like for our families who grow up in single-parent households, whether it’s missing the father or the mother. There is a deficit because of it,” she says.
Crosslin’s grandmother helped raise the four children, and taught her mother to drive. Her mother gradually learned to speak English, and ran the first in what became a series of successful restaurants. After years of working 16-hour days, she was able to put each of her four children through college. Crosslin remembers, “When I used to say to her, ‘Why do you work so hard?’ she would say–and this is a typical immigrant statement–‘so that you will never have to work in a restaurant this hard.'”
This is a story Crosslin has seen repeated in many immigrant families. “That first generation, to a degree, sacrifices themselves for the sake of the next generation.” Today, one of her siblings works in business, another is a pharmacist, and one works as an IT engineer at Boeing. “That’s quite a legacy she has left in one generation,” she says of her mother. “I have a daughter, and I say to her over and over again, ‘You can be whatever you want to be. You just have to figure out how to be able to get it. And there is an opening somewhere, if you work hard enough at it.”
A common misconception she encounters is that immigrants or refugees are able to succeed because they can easily access interest-free loans and are awarded cash handouts, when this simply is not true. “I say, ‘Well, why do you think that?’ And they say, ‘How could they survive the way they do otherwise?’” Today, Crosslin’s answer is, “Survival, survival, survival. That’s what got them here.” Refugees have been through selection processes to get into refugee camps, to escape, to make it into the United States, and then must scrap together money to get to St. Louis. “At each stage, they have had to jump through hoops. Once they get here, if they’re hit with adversity, they just keep jumping,” she says. Many refugees are also entrepreneurs, but upon arriving to the US, it’s often difficult for them to secure a loan as they typically don’t have a trackable credit history or property to put up as collateral. The International Institute is able to help them secure loans, meaning immigrants have an approved history to show to a bank.
Before starting restaurants, Crosslin’s mother had never worked. The youngest of six older siblings, five brothers and one sister, Crosslin says her mother was “the young child who was doted upon by her father.” Everything quickly changed when she lost her husband–she was forced to care for four children on her own, which brought out her untapped resourcefulness and business savvy. Her last restaurant, called Mary’s Fine Foods, had an popular breakfast that attracted customers from miles around, who lined up for her hot hash browns, eggs, and bacon. Crosslin has always been amused by the fact that her mother never opened up a Japanese restaurant–she even opened an Italian place at one point, as well. “I’m not the cook, it doesn’t matter–the business plan’s the same,” she’d say, as Crosslin recalls.
“She was very smart in her own way. She will still, to this day, do her math on an abacus, and operate it very fast. She can add up large numbers in her head–she can do all kinds of math things that are fascinating to me.” Crosslin, the oldest, essentially raised the other three children, enacting what she calls another type of immigrant mentality: the kids take care of themselves while the parents worry about paying the bills and getting food on the table.
“It was something that taught responsibility, and helped me with negotiating skills that would later help me in my business life.” Now, decades later, she manages a staff of over 75 instead of her siblings, and has at least ten employees who have been at the Institute for over 20 years. “That’s how we’ve been able to keep it growing,” she says, walking across the room to talk to one of her staff members, a man behind a desk wearing glasses and a light green plaid shirt. “It’s important to really find something that satisfies you.” She heads back to her desk. There are emails to answer, phone calls to return, meetings to plan. She abruptly pulls off her clear, frameless glasses, quickly replaces them over her eyes, and sets back to work.
For more information about Anna Crosslin and the International Institute of St. Louis, visit www.iistl.org.