Kathy Gilsinan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, covering national security and global affairs.
A mix of international politics and extended networks explain why some cities become hotbeds for refugees.
Just off Interstate 44, South St. Louis’s brick houses hug a wide central boulevard, overlooked by a limestone and terra cotta water tower that hasn’t actually distributed water since 1929. There’s a sprawling university to the north, and, a few exits further east down the highway, St. Louis’s iconic Arch crouches alongside the Mississippi.
The area has been home to several sets of European immigrants for over a century – the Italian neighborhood, The Hill, is named for what passes for high ground in the flat Midwestern city; further south is Dutchtown, the old German neighborhood, formed as part of a 19th-century wave of emigration from Bavaria whose more famous members included Adolphus Busch, co-founder of the Anheuser-Busch beer dynasty.
But South St. Louis is also the site of a much more recent influx of European immigration. Starting in the mid-1990s, after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the horrific war that accompanied it, Bosnians began to move to St. Louis in such large numbers that there are now more Bosnians per capita in St. Louis than anywhere else outside Bosnia. Formerly German neighborhoods are now home to Bosnian-owned cafes and restaurants with such barely pronounceable names as Grbic.
Nearly smack in the middle of the country, marked by decades of population decline, and hard-hit by the nationwide slump in manufacturing, the St. Louis metro area is not a natural destination for immigrants. It is among the lowest-ranked of large metro areas for percentage of foreign-born population. At the same time, St. Louis ranks among the highest metropolitan areas in terms of percentage of refugees, in part because of its Bosnian population, and it has been resettling an increasing proportion of refugees admitted to the U.S. since 2000.
In a city that otherwise continues to leak population, refugees have a noticeable impact. As reporter D.J. Wilson summarized in a 2003 profile of St. Louis’s Bosnian community:
If the recently settled Bosnian community did not exist in South St. Louis, it would be necessary to invent it. The city needs warm bodies.
America’s metropolitan areas are "where refugees have their first brush with America,” in the words of a 2006 Brookings Institution report, which notes that this is becoming increasingly true for small and medium-sized metro areas such as St. Louis. Of an estimated 10.5 million refugees worldwide, some will return to their home countries, some will remain where they have fled, and a relatively small handful of tens of thousands will end up in the United States.
But which refugees end up in the United States, and what accounts for their concentrations in different U.S. cities? Why is St. Louis, Missouri, a kind of North American capital of Bosnia, while Akron, Ohio is booming with Burmese, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul is home to large numbers of Hmong?
The answer is a complicated mix of international politics, federal policy, and local contingency. Where the federal government sets the numerical ceiling on refugee admissions -- around 70,000 for the current fiscal year -- the mechanics of resettling refugees on the ground is largely left to local agencies. The role of such agencies, the types of services they can provide, and their varying levels of resources throughout the country, helps account for why refugees settle where they do.
It explains, for example, St. Louis’s relative ease attracting refugees compared to its more general difficulty drawing in immigrants.
Anna Crosslin, President and CEO of St. Louis’s International Institute, one of many local agencies that provide refugee resettlement services, explains that the State Department contracts with agencies such as the International Institute to place refugees. What makes certain cities attractive to the State Department as destinations for refugee resettlement are not necessarily features of traditional immigrant gateways, such as New York or San Fracisco, where housing is scarce and living costs are high.
Instead, she says, placement is based on available housing, entry level jobs, availability of adjustment services, and "welcoming attitude of the community."
At the same time, local agencies have different capabilities and access to different levels of public and private resources—one might have program for female-headed Afghan households, say, or another might have staff members who speak the Hmong language. St. Louis’s International Institute, for example, is according to Crosslin "likely the largest resettlement agency in the Midwest." Thus, while it might not occur to a typical immigrant crossing a border to settle in the middle of the country, it can occur to the State Department to send a refugee there.
But the concentration of certain communities in certain cities, such as the Bosnians of St. Louis or the Afghans of Fremont, is a matter of momentum as well as policy. Refugees might learn from relatives or community leaders of lower rents or better employment opportunities in another city and move to join them, a process known as secondary migration.
"The rumor mill works very well in the refugee community," explains Crosslin. "They are not required to stay [where they first resettle] and so they rearrange themselves." North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad, for example, is home to a large number of Cambodian and Laotian Buddhists who relocated within the U.S. because of the reputation of a particular Buddhist temple in Greensboro.
The St. Louis story is typical in some respects and unique in others. The International Institute there was founded in 1919 to help waves of European emigrants adjust to life in the United States after World War I. But it wasn’t until the 1980 Refugee Act that the federal government took on a formal role in refugee resettlement, after the mass exodus of Indochinese refugees that followed the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese became the U.S.’s, and St. Louis’s, first major wave of refugee resettlement under the Refugee Act.
The second wave came in the 1990s, with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Bosnian refugees concentrated in St. Louis in large part due to the presence of a few core families already in St. Louis, as well as the activism of community members like Patrick McCarthy, a St. Louis University librarian who pushed the university to sponsor a scholarship for Bosnian students after hearing about the crisis during the 1990s. That one scholarship inspired similar ones at other St. Louis universities and, perhaps more importantly, had symbolic value as a "welcoming gesture" that contributed to St. Louis’s attraction as destination for secondary migration.
"The main dynamic in the war [in Bosnia] was people proclaiming themselves to be Christians who were committing a genocide against Muslims," so the idea of a Catholic school welcoming Bosnian Muslims was particularly powerful, says McCarthy. The student who came "lived in a convent with nuns when she arrived."
It's not clear that refugees would cluster in the same way today. America no longer settles refugees in large waves. Thanks to changing foreign policy priorities, we accept a handful of people from around the world. But though St. Louis’s International Institute settled its last Bosnians in 2001, the community has only continued to flourish. There are an estimated 70,000 Bosnians in the metro area – nearly 10 times as many as the 7,000 Crosslin estimates the International Institute initially sponsored. It is home to the only Bosnian-language newspaper in the U.S., a museum, Bosnian television and radio shows, and a museum dedicated to the Bosnian genocide.
And given how little immigration St. Louis sees in general, as well as the fact that it remains one of the most segregated cities in the United States, Bosnians have faced relatively few of the problems common to other immigrant groups, despite some complaints about Bosnian youths' driving habits. It makes a difference, says McCarthy, that Bosnian refugees were European and tended to be well-educated; in short, that they blended in. "Our identity collectively," says McCarthy, "now incorporates the experiences of these people. So we're a different city because they're here, but they are also different because they're here."
Top image: The iconic mill in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of St. Louis, where many Bosnian immigrants have settled. Image courtesy of binkle_28/Flickr