The International Institute St. Louis, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month, deserves a hearty toast for its ongoing services helping refugees resettle and assimilate under America’s protective umbrella. Americans all know the negative light that President Donald Trump has placed on immigration, but we also know that this has always been a nation of immigrants and that the rich texture of American society is because of the country’s ability to embrace and absorb newcomers from abroad.
Anyone who drives the streets near Grand Boulevard in Tower Grove East on weekday mornings is probably familiar with the scenes of grizzled-looking couples, often in traditional outfits, making their way toward 3401 Arsenal Street. The stories they could tell...
The challenge is particularly difficult for refugees, who have been uprooted by dangerous circumstances in their home countries and who have been forced to flee with only the items they can carry in their hands. “Basically, all of them have been traumatized” in one way or another, says Anna Crosslin, president and chief executive of the institute. They carry awful memories with them, she adds, noting a Congolese woman who saw her father beheaded with a machete.
“These are the survivors,” Crosslin says. Their resilience contributes to the ambitious spirit that drives America forward.
Once granted asylum by the United States, they come to cities like St. Louis with no resources and no jobs. Their English language skills tend to be minimal to non-existent. Everything from crossing the street in traffic to making supermarket purchases and finding housing is fraught with difficulties the rest of us can hardly imagine.
The International Institute has served as the welcome mat, helping ease the anxiety of this transition and smooth the way toward assimilation. New arrivals receive free English-language classes, and help with social services, job training and placement, citizenship-test preparation, and obtaining housing and furniture. Those interested in starting their own businesses receive guidance on obtaining loans and proper permits. The list of services goes on and on, every one of which is invaluable for the people served.
Try — just try — not to smile when Gerry Marian sits down to play the organ at the Chase Park Cinemas. Marian provides the musical scores at Saturday morning showings of silent films. But even if you can’t make it for those screenings, he provides a lively selection of organ tunes to warm up the crowd before screenings of newly released films on certain nights. He has delighted audience members most nights for the past quarter century. In a city so steeped in tradition and striving to keep its vibrant history alive, Marian provides the music track.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin recently did a profile of Marian, 70, and the vanishing art form he’s helping sustain. Marian drew his inspiration from having visited the Fox Theatre in 1961, at age 11, and watching in awe as the grand Wurlitzer, connected to a lift, rose dramatically from the orchestra pit at showtime. Legendary organist Stan Kann’s performances inspired Marian not merely to listen and enjoy but to learn how to operate the complex, multi-tiered keyboard, pedals and knobs. Marian decided to make a career of it. “I knew right then and there that that was my vocation. I told my dad that one day I would like to play just exactly like Stan. Which I did,” he told Goodwin.
But there’s more to it than just playing. Kann taught Marian the art of patience and self-restraint while providing a silent-film music track, punctuating what was happening on the screen, adding to the suspense and anticipation without overwhelming the room with organ music. Marian’s contribution provides just one more of those delightful, quirky surprises that give St. Louisans a reason to be proud of the city’s rich and living history.
Education is one of the most effective means of ensuring that prison inmates, once released, don’t ever have to go back. Washington University and St. Louis University have quietly launched programs to provide classroom instruction so inmates can pursue higher-education degrees. St. Louis University’s program, launched in 2011, is available not just to inmates but to prison staff as well. In 2014, Washington University set up its own program, putting an initial class of 10 students on track to earn an associate’s degree.
At both universities, only a select few are accepted after a rigorous application and interview process. Classes taught by university professors range from poetry to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., theology, calculus and public speaking. The SLU program has served 4,500 student inmates. Not one, organizers say, has returned to prison.
Instead of treating inmates like prisoners, they are students once inside the classroom. Professors grade them, question them and challenge them as rigorously as they would the 20-year-old students at their own colleges. Their criminal records are less important than the strength of their thesis statement on an essay or the correct use of a formula.
“My papers always looked like red coloring books when you were done editing them,” one student wrote to Margaret Garb, a founder of the Washington University program. She recently passed away. “It was through you that we knew that Wash. U. did not come to change us, brainwash us, but on the contrary to accept us as we are, but still make us better in the process.”
Fang you very much, Donna Mowery. Bats are squeaky and creepy. Especially around Halloween, they’re associated with scary places and evil doings. Then there’s the real-life threat of rabies. But bats are also little mosquito-control machines and important pollinators — and they’re endangered by a rampant disease that’s already killed millions of them. So while Mowery’s mission of rescuing, raising and returning dislocated bats to the wild from her St. Louis-area home might give some people the willies, it’s an important service for this underappreciated creature.
As the Post-Dispatch’s Erin Heffernan reported in August, Mowery’s home in Catawissa, about 40 miles southwest of St. Louis, is a refuge for her unusual volunteer activity, which springs from a childhood interest in the furry flying mammals. That led her, a few years ago, to work with the Missouri Bat Census, a volunteer bat conservation network.
Today, Mowery takes in bats that are injured and nurses them back to health. She puts in full days every spring providing constant eye-dropper feeding to abandoned infant bats, eventually helping them learn how to hunt insects. When residents have bats in their homes that need to be removed, Mowery is the one to call.
To get into the bat-saving business, her setup costs included about $6,000 for initial rabies vaccinations — a good investment, as she estimates she’s been bitten about 1,000 times.
Hers is an urgent mission today because of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that’s decimating bat populations nationally. “Someone’s got to do it,” says Mowery, who sees it as an imperative for her eight grandchildren: “I want to make sure bats are still around for them.”