In-Depth: From Saigon and Sarajevo to St. Louis, Refugees Revive City
Cities and communities that view migration as an opportunity, not only as a challenge, can reap multiple benefits. This article originally appeared on Refugees Deeply, and you can find the original here. For important news about the global migration crisis, you can sign up to the Refugees Deeply email list. 100RC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.
FEW U.S. METROPOLITAN areas transform as noticeably from one neighborhood to the next as St. Louis.
On the drive toward the Gateway Arch on the banks of the Mississippi River, in the original heart of the city, the roads turn from smooth to ragged and become peppered with potholes. Ritzy malls are replaced by thrift shops. The affluent neighborhoods of the counties give way to poverty and neglect in the city.
On a boulevard that cuts St. Louis into two, marking a striking racial and economic divide, Hang Nguyen Trinh and her family, originally from Saigon, own the best-known Vietnamese restaurant in the area.
For the past 25 years, Pho Grand has been attracting customers from opposite sides of the Mississippi River to a part of St. Louis that is regarded as a success story for the resettlement and integration of refugees. The family-run restaurant has become such a fixture that most locals cannot remember when “the Hangs” came to live in Middle America, off the usual migrant path.
A surprising number of migrants and refugees have been able to cross the city’s physical and psychological divisions, breathing new life into its dying neighborhoods.
St. Louis is a city of seeming contradictions. At one point, it was staunchly segregated. Yet it now has one of the largest per capita refugee populations among U.S. metropolitan areas. Images of the city from the early 1900s – when it was a gateway to the West – depict a bustling metropolis, with its population reaching more than 800,000 by the 1920s. But following decades of general recession and outward migration, the population of the city’s urban core dwindled to about 320,000 by 2010. As a result, entire neighborhoods were emptied, with shop fronts indefinitely shuttered. Following the decline in American manufacturing during the 1970s, the city desperately needed new workers and job creators – “warm bodies,” as local reporters describe it. Arriving refugees resuscitated neglected parts of the inner city and over time started their own enterprises, bringing new work opportunities to locals, and better infrastructure and development to their areas. When Trinh opened Pho Grand restaurant on Grand Avenue in 1989, it was the first Vietnamese restaurant in the region. The avenue, in a protected heritage area, was bereft of residents and commerce. Two and a half decades later, her restaurant is surrounded by several other businesses offering ethnic cuisine on a boulevard that is frequented by office workers by day and university students by night. The businesses attracted banks to further invest in the area, which resulted in better connectivity with the rest of the region.
Not far from Trinh’s restaurant lies Little Bosnia, a neighborhood that resembles a quaint Eastern European village. Restaurants serve Bosnian specialties such as pljeskavica (minced beef) and cevapi (sausage) and conversations on the streets switch back and forth between Bosnian and English.
Resettlement in St. Louis
Above, a timeline of U.S. responses to different displacement crises since World War II, and the enactment of new federal laws that have filtered down to more support and services at the local levels.
The city’s positive track record with resettlement is the product of generations of work by St. Louis’ local resettlement programs and by refugees themselves. Successful integration has hinged on meeting the refugees’ three main practical needs: community, identity and employment.
Nationwide, a history of creative responses to different displacement crises and changing federal laws have filtered down to more support and services at the local level. Organizations such as the International Institute in St. Louis – one of 300 such assistance agencies across the United States – help new arrivals with accessing education, employment, healthcare and rehabilitation. In turn, newly empowered refugee communities have become entrepreneurial in spirit. This is notably the case in St. Louis, where refugees have opened businesses and bought homes in otherwise depressed areas of the city.
The current anti-immigrant and anti-refugee fervor in the U.S. belies the country’s history of successfully integrating refugees in places like St. Louis that are off the usual migration trajectory. Most recently, President-elect Trump has vowed to send back up to 3 million undocumented migrants and restrict the United States’ refugee resettlement program, which is the largest in the world and has the most stringent vetting procedures of any route to enter the country.
Despite the fear-mongering, a look at successive generations of refugees and their integration into the U.S. shows that providing resources and support to refugees during their resettlement period is an investment that can benefit both the refugees and the American communities hosting them.
In St. Louis, Refugees Deeply met three families from different waves of displacement, who arrived in the U.S. during varying political climates – Vietnamese refugees who came in the 1980s and 1990s, Bosnians in the early 1990s and 2000s and Iraqis in more recent years. Each generation said their ability to regain their financial independence and immediate access to education helped them become part of the social tapestry and, eventually, feel at home as “New Americans.”
From Saigon to St. Louis
If integration is a mutual process, in which U.S. communities and new arrivals influence each other’s cultures, then food is a valuable litmus test.
Pho Grand is a case in point. It is pronounced “fuh” and not “faux,” as self-respecting connoisseurs of the traditional Vietnamese broth at the restaurant – mostly middle-aged white men – will gently scold you, while proclaiming the restaurant “the best in the Midwest!”
“Most people are astonished that I was a refugee at some point. I try to tell them that a refugee is like anyone else, just without a country to call home,” Trinh says with a smile.
Trinh calmly recounts how she watched the rising plumes of smoke engulfing her home, as she sat in silent consternation, with nearly 4,000 other people, cowering on the deck of a departing commercial ship. It was 1975, and Saigon was burning down to the ground.
“When the communists came from north to south and bombarded the city, we took off to the pier, amid a life and death situation. I saw bombs falling, I saw dead people in the streets. I was 11 years at the time, so old enough to remember,” explains Trinh.
They sailed into the pitch blackness of the South China Sea, with the water and the sky bleeding into each other in the starless night. Trinh thinks she was at sea for four days, feeling as if she was trapped in the Bermuda Triangle, never to be found again. The memories remain so raw, “it could have happened yesterday.”
She cannot ever forget seeing a grown man put a pistol to his head, on the deck, among the listless passengers. “He was right there in front of us, with his insides splattered on the floor. He was filled with regret over leaving his wife and children behind.” She also remembers seeing many people panicking as the ships departed, and jumping into the water to swim back to shore.
Their ship managed to reach Hong Kong, where her family applied for asylum through the U.S. resettlement program in 1980. They were among the 120,000 “Vietnamese boat people” who arrived in the U.S. within 12 months of the country creating a special resettlement program.
Changing Responses to Displacement
Resettlement patterns in the U.S. are driven by an interlinked mix of “international politics, federal policy and local contingency,” according to journalist Kathy Gilsinan, and Trinh’s story includes all three factors.
Of the 1.3 million Vietnamese living in the U.S. today, roughly 70 percent arrived seeking asylum from the 1980s to 2000. Trinh is among them.
Tens of thousands settled in St. Louis, drawing their extended family members over the decades. During the 1990s, large numbers of Vietnamese who were in the “re-education camps” of the new communist government were also granted asylum on humanitarian and political grounds. Tens of thousands of them were relocated to St. Louis.
The history of refugee resettlement in the U.S. dates back to the aftermath of World War II, when more than 600,000 Europeans entered the U.S. over several years. In that era, the U.S.’s approach to refugee resettlement consisted of creating ad hoc laws to cope with each unfolding displacement crisis. In the 1950s and 1960s, in response to a wave of refugees from Hungary and Cuba, the U.S. bestowed “parole” authority to the office of the attorney general to expedite admissions of civilians in need of urgent humanitarian protection. By 1975, the U.S. applied this approach to the Vietnamese crisis and set up the Indochinese Refugee Task Force and a domestic integration program.
But it was the 1980 Refugee Act that became a “decisive turning point” by creating new political asylum laws and local assistance programs, and solidifying the relationship between resettlement agencies and the federal government. Vietnamese and other Indochinese refugees were the first wave of refugees to benefit from the newly created laws and local support systems. Since then, the U.S. has resettled more than 3 million displaced people, making it the largest facilitator of refugee resettlement in the world.