Monday, September 7, 2015

City of Refuge

When I was an undergraduate student, I majored in Sociology, with a special focus on urban studies. I LOVED being a Sociology student - getting to learn about why the world is the way it is from different perspectives and paradigms. We focused a lot on local issues, and I learned all about Saint . At the end of the program, we each were supposed to find an aspect of this city to research that hasn't received much academic attention. There is a lot of scholarly work done about race relations, gentrification, "ghetto" culture, etc. I didn't know if I could find an under-researched area.

Then, I stumbled upon something that filled my heart with joy. I took an internship at an organization that helped refugee families with resettlement in South Saint Louis. I had never been to that area of the city before, and I was delighted to see women in head coverings walking the streets, Middle Eastern grocery stores, signs in other languages. I am originally from Southern California, from an extremely diverse area, and I was always unsettled by the lack of diversity I saw in Saint Louis and its surrounding areas. It reminded me of where I came from, a little. It turns out that Saint Louis is a major city for refugee resettlement in the US, because it has a lot of cheap housing available, and there once was a need for more factory workers. I started meeting families from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Bhutan, Myanmar, Cuba, Colombia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia.. and more.

I started making friends with refugees. I would come to their homes in the evening, after my internship, and have tea with them. I encountered some really hard stories, and situations that still seemed impossible to overcome. Even after being relocated from a war zone, these precious people still struggle. They are isolated and alone. They don't know the language well. They don't understand this individualist culture, or why their neighbors don't want to talk to them. They have post traumatic stress disorder. They have health problems. They struggle to find purpose in their new American life. I loved being their friend. It was also exhausting. They wanted someone to lean on, to help them navigate this new life, and I was often one of the only phone numbers they had to call.

This was about three years ago, and I remember that the organization I was working with was preparing for new groups of Syrians to begin arriving at any time. They never came.

This week, attention has been directed towards refugees in Syria because a photo of a precious little boy surfaced on the internet. Now there are petitions and marches and demonstrations circulating around. The nature of the internet means that viral topics die down once the next thing surfaces, but this has been an issue for years. There really is a place for them here. If and when I ever have a more permanent place to live, I want to live in South Saint Louis among my refugee friends.

Through my undergraduate studies and internship, I wrote a paper that explains the history of refugees in Saint Louis, and why they are actually a benefit to our city. It was very difficult research, because there are so few academic sources on the subject matter. A lot of data was derived from first hand accounts and interviews. I had professors highly encourage me to get it published, but I never did. Now, I am reminded why it was a timely and important piece of research, and I want to share it. Right now, there are groups of people calling for door to be opened for Syrian refugees to be resettled in Saint Louis, and there needs to be evidence presented that this will be a benefit to our city as well. (Notice that I say "our city" - I'm not originally from here either).

Remember that there are thousands of refugees already here, too.. And even though it is hard and tiring, you can be that phone number that they call when they need a ride to the doctor's office, help finding a job, someone to watch their kids, someone to come pick them up in the middle of the night, or just someone to share tea with.

Refugees in South Saint Louis: The World behind Closed Doors 

Kaitlyn Gresham

University of MissouriSaint Louis 2011


The prevalence of global and civil conflict throughout the world today has forced over fifteen million people into diaspora as refugees around the globe. These mass relocations have great significance in U.S. cities, where immigrant populations have historically had great impact in shaping the nature and futures of U.S. urban centers. This research seeks to provide an increased understanding of the nature of the refugee population in Saint Louis Missouri, a city that has not traditionally been host to a globally diverse population. It seeks to understand how the Saint Louis area of Bevo Mills has been redefined historically by the presence of Central and Eastern European refuge-seeking populations, and the significance of “new” refugee groups from Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East who have recently entered this context.


Research Paper:

            In the year 1850 a farmer stepped outside of his house and looked out across vast fields where green crops flourished above soil filled with deposits of rich red clay. He had chosen this peaceful area south of the big city to grow his crops, knowing that the proximity to the city and the Mississippi River would grant him a good market for his produce. A mere thirty years later, a group of German men gathered on a porch facing a street lined with uniform brick houses.  Although none of the area’s residents had lived there for long, the rituals of gem├╝tlichkeit, gathering to share beer, stories and laughter, fostered a sense of solidarity and pride in their shared national origins (Miller, 2008). In the early 1960s, a middle aged woman peered out a window at an empty street. She had lived in the area all of her life, just as her parents had. The houses where her neighbors and friends had lived now stood boarded up, and the storefronts that were once bustling with people sat vacant. Her loyalty to her neighborhood caused her to decide to remain when her neighbors had moved out of the city, but she worried what the future would hold for this area that had served as the backdrop of her life. Indeed, the area changed drastically with the passage of time. In 1999, a child clung to his mother and father as they approached the brick building that would be their new house. Although they had come to a new country far from home, they saw restaurants serving food that they were familiar with, and newspapers printed in their own language. Together they had seen great violence and tragedy, but they knew that eventually this place could feel like home. Just a few years later, in 2008, two women passed each other on the street. Although they both wore the traditional Muslim hijab, they did not speak the same language and had come from very different parts of the world. The woman from Somalia and the woman from Iraq walked down the street lined with uniform brick houses, knowing little of those who had come before them.
          The experiences of these people span centuries and continents, but are all tied together in the context of the same place. In the heart of South Saint Louis is an area that has come to be known as Bevo Mill. From its foundation, this area south of the Saint Louis Gateway Arch has been the city’s primary destination for populations arriving from war-torn countries around the world. From populations of German people fleeing political tension in the 1800s, Bosnians seeking refuge after the fall of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to recent African and Southeast Asian arrivals from countries scarred by post-colonial era civil wars, the demographics of this area have been ever changing. Although elements of the area continue to reflect its German roots, each new population has played a part in re-interpreting and redefining the space to reflect their own cultural identity. While refugees who have arrived in large homogenous groups have been able to establish vibrant cultural enclaves in Bevo Mills, smaller groups of recent arrivals are becoming marginalized as the area diversifies.
    During the mid-nineteenth century, events that took place across Europe would have a direct effect on the Saint Louis urban landscape. Revolutions that occurred in multiple European countries caused political tension to arise in Germany and much of the population began to be denied their political and civil rights.  When several seasons of bad harvests and economic depression added to the turmoil, many were forced to seek new lives outside of their country (Burnett and Luebbering, 1996). The destination of nearly five million of these refuge-seekers would be in the United States. In what Gary Ross Mormino, Professor of History at University of Southern Florida calls a “tidal wave of immigrants,” many sailed up the Mississippi River to their final destination in Saint Louis, Missouri (Mormino, 1986).  The influx of the new population from Germany and other various European countries caused the city to expand and transform to accommodate the new arrivals. Between 1830 and 1870, the city’s population increased from 7,000 to around 78,000, and was forced to push outwards to the north, south, and west (Miller, 2008). Although they were not the only new European arrivals, very large German enclaves with a distinct cultural flair were formed on the northern and southern fringes of the city.
One area in which German cultural life was most evident was in the southern extremity of the city, in an area that would become known as Bevo Mills. German newcomers were attracted to this area because of the affordable farmland, and most importantly, the development of the breweries which were central to German cultural life. The area was soon transformed from rural farmland to a booming residential area with streets lined with sturdy brick houses. The German social practice of gem├╝tlichkeit, which included a general spirit of friendliness and much social drinking, produced a vivacious dynamic within the community (Miller, 2008).  In the words of Emil Mallinckrodt, a German-St. Louisan, “We live here as in Germany, wholly surrounded by Germans” (Burnett and Luebbering, 1996). The area began to be called “Bevo Mills” when August Anheuser Busch, Sr. chose to construct a Flemish architectural-style restaurant in the area, complete with a towering replica of a Dutch windmill in front (The Saint Louis Core, 2009). The mill became the area’s symbol and namesake, and would stand as a lasting icon of the neighborhood’s German era in the midst of impending change.
        The German community in Bevo Mills worked to keep their culture alive, but as time progressed the area transitioned away from its German heritage. According to a local newspaper, the 1880s were the peak time for German culture in the area (The Globe Democrat, 1969). Schools and businesses used German as their primary language and numerous cultural organizations hosted regular German festivals and celebrations (Sullivan, 1990). In 1920, the dawn of prohibition in Saint Louis caused the local breweries to close down inflicted a severe decline in the strength of the German community (Benn, 2011). Many were put out of jobs and had to move to other parts of the city to seek new opportunities for employment. Many second and third-generation Germans began to assimilate into the dominant Saint Louis society. During mid-20th century the development of suburbs and the process of “white flight” drained the area of many families, leaving it to become a sleepy area with declining property values and an aging population. Long-time residents observed the urban decline that was occurring throughout other regions of the city with concern for the fate of their own neighborhood (The Post, 1975).
        The second half of the twentieth century marked a low point for Bevo Mills, as it came perilously close to its demise as a Saint Louis cultural center. Local newspapers discussed the area as if it were the ruins of an ancient civilization, with statements such as “newcomers to the area feel as if they’ve gone back in time… No renovations have occurred since the 1940s,” referring to the “dingy” remnants of an area that once hosted a “fine civilization.” Some publications went as far as to compare Bevo Mills to a “139-year-old senile delinquent” that was now “on its last legs (The Globe Democrat, 1969.” Still, the long-time residents of Bevo Mills refused to lose hope on the future of the area. Many hoped to tap into the area’s European roots to create a new “Central West End” with a “historic European flair (DeMario, 1986).” The remaining residents of Bevo Mills, however, could not revive the area on their own. If they did not want it to die, it was in desperate need of a rebirth. Like its former German inhabitants so many years ago, the population who would inhabit and re-establish the area would be a group of people fleeing upheavals in Europe, seeking to transplant their lives into safety. The antiquated refuge for German immigrants would be given new life by the people of a fallen Yugoslavia; Bosnian refugees.
               In the early 1990s the most violent European civil conflict since World War II sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into diaspora throughout the industrialized world. The fall of Yugoslavia ignited a brutal genocide in which Orthodox Christian Serbians sought to exterminate the Muslim Bosnians who resided within their newly shared territory (The Bosnia Memory Project, 2012). As families were torn apart, entire villages were massacred, and concentration camps were formed, masses of Bosnian people fled the violence clinging to the backs of trucks or in busses so packed that some died of suffocation (McCarthy and Maday, 2000). An entire population of emotionally and mentally scarred people sought asylum beyond the reaches of the brutal violence, without knowing where the remainder of their lives would play out. A large number of the Bosnians who were given the opportunity to claim refugee status and leave their country suddenly found themselves relocated to an American city that lay west of a wide, murky river and a towering metal arch. Tens of thousands of  Bosnian refugees were brought to the former homes of the German arrivals that had come before them, to the Saint Louis neighborhood of Bevo Mills.
         Saint Louis was chosen to be a prime destination city for Bosnian refugees because it was a city in decline that could sustain a new population; it needed the innovation of this group of survivors to contribute to its own survival. The early 1990s in Saint Louis saw a boom in suburban expansion that drained the city of many residents and left open a multitude of service sector jobs and entire neighborhoods of available housing. While the city of Saint Louis may have seen this as a problem, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) saw it as an opportunity. Prior to initiating the resettlement process of Bosnians who were seeking asylum, the ORR had conducted a comparison of cities across the United States in order to choose a “preferred community” that could, in their words, provide a “favorable earned income potential relative to the cost of living (Office of Refugee Resettlement, 1997).” Rather than giving preference to large multicultural centers such as Los Angeles or Chicago, they sought an area where there was not a large international population in order to avoid potential ethnic competition for available jobs (Matsuo and Poljarevic). Because of its abundance of relatively affordable housing and numerous vacant labor positions, Saint Louis became a preferred destination for Bosnian refugees.
       The arrival of Bosnian refugees in Saint Louis started as a trickle that quickly turned into a flood. In the fall of 1993, a handful of thirty-two Bosnian refugees were sponsored by the International Institute to be resettled in Saint Louis. Within a span of ten years, this number increased to around 60,000, as Bosnians who had been relocated to other parts of the U.S. migrated to Saint Louis, seeking the community and familiarity of their homeland (Cooperman, 2011). This group, which came to comprise 16% of Saint Louis’ total population, inhabited an area between South Grand, Chippewa Avenue, and South Kingshighway in Bevo Mills, where they could be close to the refugee resettlement agencies located there (Matsuo and Poljarevic). Despite the difficult adjustment factors such as cultural differences, higher crime rates, inadequate public transportation, harsh weather and language barriers, the distance of Bevo Mills from the business of downtown provided the new populace with a sense of stability and permanence. Knowing that returning to their homeland was not a viable option, the Bosnian population began to make Bevo Mills their home.
The Saint Louis Bosnians and their host neighborhood benefitted mutually from their presence in the area. As they entered a part of the city that was left largely undefined, the new population was able to re-appropriate the area to reflect their own cultural identity. Bosnians capitalized on the availability of vacant storefronts and former restaurants, creating a brand new cultural enclave.  According to a Bosnian resident, “We settled here in the beginning, and I remember that there were a lot of buildings here that were destroyed. Later Bosnians were buying the buildings and living. And, you know, Bosnians are very successful” (Zahirovic, 2012). Vacant storefronts long abandoned by their former German proprietors soon contained Europa and Balkan markets, Bosnian restaurants and bakeries, and Western European-style coffee shops and bars. Law offices, mechanic garages, beauty parlors, newspapers and even childcare centers soon became advertised under Bosnian names. According to Sukrija Dzidzovic, a Saint Louis Bosnian and publisher of the Bosnian weekly newspaper SabaH, “Bosnians run the gamut, from truckers and bakery workers to lawyers and engineers. Many Bosnians hit the ground running here because they came from Europe with savings they had stashed away. At one time, Bosnians opened so many businesses on blighted streets that hostile rumors spread that they were receiving secret subsidies from the federal government” (Preston, 2010). The rest of the city soon began to recognize and reflect on the transformation that had occurred in Bevo Mills.  According to Saint Louis Magazine, “Neighborhoods such as the blocks around the landmark Bevo Mill [restaurant] that were heading for ghost-town status now are teeming with new residents and new economic activity” (Preston, 2010). As they sought to preserve their cultural identity, the Bosnian population had preserved this part of the city as well.
The new small enterprises in Bevo Mills became the center of Bosnian cultural life, and aided in developing a sense of community among the Bosnian population. Entrepreneurs not only provided jobs and received business from fellow Bosnians, but promoted a sense of cultural unity.  According to a Bosnian resident, "When I came in 1995, that part of Gravois Road between Meramec and Eichelberger Streets was completely vacant. Now, with so many businesses and Southern Commercial Bank, it is a little Bosnian downtown. There are so many Bosnians that at least I am not afraid to walk there anymore" (Tucci, 1999). New restaurants, coffee shops and bars became gathering places for the Bosnian community, where they could come together and eat traditional food, listen to familiar music, speak a common language, and develop a sense of cultural solidarity. According to Saint Louis Magazine, many Bosnians sought to beautify and improve their homes and neighborhoods, seeking to secure a positive reputation within their new city. As the new businesses accrued revenue and buildings were maintained, property values in the area rose (Cooperman, 2011). Alderman Dan Kirner recognized the Bosnian population as the community’s anchor; just like the area’s former German community, this population’s cultural life would carry Bevo Mills into the future (Wittenauer, 2003).
         As time has progressed, passing eras of history have been marked by very different periods of conflict around the world. Audrey Singer and Jill Wilson of the Brookings Institution have classified refugee-producing conflicts into distinct periods: The “Cold War Period,” characterized by the Vietnam War and extending to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the “Balkans Period,” marked by the fall of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian Genocide, and the modern “Civil Conflict Period,” in which a diverse array of global and civil conflicts have taken place. During this period, civil upheavals throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and numerous African countries have been the main sources of refugee arrivals to the United States. Unlike their European predecessors, these new refugees have not been resettled to Saint Louis in large, homogenous groups. Although there have been a significant number of arrivals during the current Civil Conflict Period, their cultural heterogeneity has created a resettlement experience that is dissimilar from those of the prior European arrivals.
             As many as eighty thousand new refugees are resettled to the U.S. from dozens of countries each year, several hundred of whom are annually relocated to the city of Saint Louis (LeLaurin, 2010). Unlike their Bosnian predecessors, refugees who arrive in Saint Louis from countries such as Liberia, Sudan, Iraq, Bhutan or Burma arrive in smaller numbers. While they continue to be resettled throughout Bevo Mills, these new populations have not been able to re-appropriate the area to the same extent as the more homogenous refugee groups who have come before them. The Saint Louis Bosnians arrived in large numbers in an area that had lost its definition and were able to re-establish elements of their culture there. New refugees, however, are entering the same area that has now been re-occupied and redefined, in numbers that are too small to significantly influence the culture of the area. As a result, new refugees often encounter difficulties that may have significant implications for the future ethnic landscape of Bevo Mills.
   The difficulties that new refugees encounter when entering the Bosnian-American population of Bevo Mills have caused many to become socially and economically marginalized rather than integrated into a multicultural community. Barry Stein, Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University, differentiates “new” refugees from “traditional” refugee arrivals to U.S. cities. He explains that while traditional refugees who arrived following World Wars I and II entered societies that had many similarities to their home cultures and typically had friends and family waiting for them, “new” refugees who arrive from African, Asian, and Middle Eastern cultures encounter many obstacles (Stein, Barry). In the midst of a strong Bosnian community, many struggle to establish contact with those of their own nationality and develop new social ties. In the words of a Jordanian woman in Bevo Mills, “Sometimes I do not feel like I am living in America; I feel like I am living in Bosnia because that is all I see around me (Iman, 2012).”  According to a Saint Louis Iraqi family, although they knew that there were many other families from Iraq living in the area, they had yet to meet any of them (Wedad, 2012). New refugees are scattered throughout the area, and are often nervous about spending a lot of time in public spaces. This often prevents the formation of ties to the community. After going through the trauma of living in war zones, many may be more comfortable living in social isolation rather than adjusting to interaction in such a multicultural dynamic.
Language barriers and the struggle to find employment create additional barriers that hinder new refugees’ integration into Bevo Mills. The populations from Germany and Bosnia established a cultural enclave in which their native languages competed with English to be the dominant idiom. New refugees have not arrived in Saint Louis in large enough numbers to have this effect. A Burmese woman who had been relocated to Saint Louis in 2009 described her struggle with language barriers during her first experiences in Saint Louis “When we arrived in America, my husband and I only had twenty dollars and a bag of clothes. We knew no English, so we could not ask directions to go to the store to buy food. We would stay in our home all day” (Ciang Man, 2012). When asked about the most difficult part of their transition to life in Bevo Mills, many new refugees additionally describe the difficulty of finding employment. A recent arrival from the Sudan describes his frustration with this obstacle: “I thought that when I came to America, I would get a good job, good living, good employment. But when I came, I was surprised. I saw many thousands of people who do not have a job. I lack everything in my life if I don't have a job. I see that my time is going without benefit… If I stay home like that, I am like a dead body” (David, 2012) The new labor force that Saint Louis had considered an asset from the Bosnian community has increasingly become a burden as the availability of jobs has decreased. While many Bosnians brought with them the resources to start new businesses that could be marketed to their own people and create new sources of revenue, this opportunity has not been readily available to the small groups of new arrivals. Because of this, new refugees often struggle economically as they seek for sources of income and employment.
              The factors that inhibit new refugees from becoming integrated to the same degree as their Bosnian neighbors have significant implications for the future of Bevo Mills. Like the area’s former German population, second and third generation Bosnians are becoming assimilated into the dominant culture of Saint Louis and moving to other parts of the city. According to a Bosnian resident, “If you are Irish or German, your great-great grandpa came [to America] a long time ago and now you are all Americans. Eventually we will become as well” (Zahirovic ). Meanwhile, the new refugees that are continuously entering the area reflect such a variety of cultures that it is unlikely that a new mono-cultural enclave will succeed the Bosnian population. The marginalization of new refugees makes it difficult for them to hold on to their culture of origin, and often makes assimilation the only alternative to complete isolation. As the younger generation Bosnians join the dominant Saint Louis society as well, Bevo Mills may be threatened once again by impending urban decline. The constant arrival of new refugee families, however, guarantees that the area will remain a multicultural urban center.
    The inhabitants of Bevo Mills have long been a reflection of the populations who are experiencing conflict and war around the globe. As the dynamics of tension around the world have shifted and become more diverse, so have the demographics of the area. Through the presence of Bosnian refugees, Saint Louis has been given a glimpse of the revitalization and urban redefinition that can be brought about when new populations are provided with the social and economic resources that they need in order to thrive. The new refugees that are continuously arriving may represent an ongoing opportunity for urban renewal as well, if they are given the chance to develop their own vibrant cultural enclaves. As Bevo Mills continues to diversify, it has the opportunity to reflect back to the world what it might look like for people of very different nationalities, cultural backgrounds, religion, skin color, languages and life stories to share a mutual space in peace.

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