Inside Look at the Institute – Culture Links, Festival of Nations World Sports & Games Meadow, and Bank of America Student Leaders Program – by Andrew Hof, Intern

According to bestselling author Paulo Coehlo, “Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first they have to understand that their neighbor is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.”  Culture is a centerpiece of American life, but we often define American culture as a mixture of various world culture brought together in the “melting pot.”

Culture Links, a database of ethnic and multicultural organizations in the St. Louis area, recognizes the need for international culture in our city.  Hundreds of active community groups comprise Culture Links, with ties ranging from the Congo to Indonesia, Argentina to Turkey, and everything in between.  These organizations promote diversity in the St. Louis area and create a distinct environment of cultural acceptance in the broader community.

The International Institute’s annual Festival of Nations further develops multicultural relations in the metro region.  As an intern, I am in charge of organizing the World Sports and Games Meadow for the festival.  My goal for the meadow is to create a diverse atmosphere that represents various unique cultures and demonstrates how all of these cultures are united in us as St. Louisans.  Perhaps this is a lofty goal, especially for a section of the festival which focuses on intriguing sports and distinctive board games from around the world, but I believe my goal is attainable since sharing and respecting one another’s culture is the first step to understanding your neighbor.

Through programs like Culture Links and events like the Festival of Nations, the International Institute attempts to develop St. Louis as a beacon of international class.  I am interning at the Institute this summer through the Bank of America Student Leaders Program.  During leadership training for student leaders last week, I was given a downtown St. Louis walking tour which highlighted the economic redevelopment of the city in the past ten years.  I had not been downtown during the day in several years and was pleasantly surprised how bustling the city was on this random Wednesday afternoon.  St. Louis has desirable features as a city, and a diverse cultural heritage is one aspect that we can use to distinguish ourselves as a truly global player in the economy.  Recognizing our differences and deciding that those differences do not make us all that different has the ability to create an unstoppable St. Louis.  The future of our city is bright, and organizations like the International Institute only make it brighter.

Check The i next week for my report on meeting with International Institute employee’s in charge of refugee and immigration resettlement programs.

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Inside Look at the Institute – Inaugural Citizenship Ceremony Held at New IISTL Campus – by Andrew Hof, Intern

The International Institute held its inaugural citizenship ceremony in the Hall of Nations on Friday, June 30th.  Thirty long-time residents of the United States finally completed their journey to citizenship after a process that typically spans several years.  These new citizens originated from five continents and thirteen countries, each bringing their own diversity to the American melting pot.

The ceremony itself was relatively brief.  In roughly an hour, the Federal procedure had concluded after moving performances of “America the Beautiful” and “The Star Spangled Banner” by the Courthouse Singers, brief speeches by Anna Crosslin, President and CEO of the International Institute, and David Douglas, Midwest District Director of Citizen and Immigration services, and a formal court motion for citizenship made by Joshua Jones, Assistant U.S. Attorney and Naturalization Examiner, which was wholeheartedly approved by the honorable Henry E. Autrey, United States District Judge.

Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to tutor immigrants and refugees in the early stages of their citizenship process through the Institute’s Citizenship Literacy course.  Not only were the students learning about U.S. history and the role of government in order to pass the citizenship interview, but many of them were illiterate and had to learn simultaneously how to read, write, and speak in English.  The obstacles were certainly stacked up against these eager students, but their enthusiasm was unparalleled.

Having worked with students in the early stages of their citizenship procedure added significance when I saw those thirty new Americans taking the Oath of Allegiance before a crowd filled with family, friends, and International Institute staff.  From my very limited experience working with prospective citizens, I already came to understand the lofty nature of their goal.  U.S. citizenship is something often taken for granted by native-born Americans, but becoming a citizen takes dedication and strength of will.  Several of the new citizens came to this country as outsiders looking in on the possibilities that were here with the determination to create a better life than what was left behind.  Obtaining their citizenship is the final mark of success.  Not only have they come here and found prosperity, but they have actually become a part of the American population.

Even if you do not consider yourself to be a particularly patriotic person, observing a citizenship ceremony will renew your belief in the American way of life.  Our democracy continues to thrive when we continue to introduce new ideas to the system.  As Mary Pipher, psychologist and author, summarized, “people come here penniless but not cultureless… we can synthesize the best of our traditions with the best of theirs. We can teach and learn from each other to produce a better America.”

Immigration Services at the International Institute: http://www.iistl.org/immigrationtravel.html

Citizenship Preparation classes at the International Institute: http://www.iistl.org/citizenship.html

Can you pass a citizenship test? http://www.uscis.gov/citizenship/quiz/learners/study-test/study-materials-civics-test/naturalization-self-test-1

Inside Look at the Institute – World Refugee Day – by Andrew Hof, Intern

As World Refugee Day approaches, taking a moment to examine how immigrants and refugees impact our community is a worthwhile exercise.  Personally, I did not know much about the strenuous process that most refugees are forced to endure after fleeing from initial hardship in their native countries.  Hopefully this post will help to clear up misconceptions about refugees and highlight facts about them that will demonstrate the fundamental benefit of incorporating refugees into our American heritage.

First off, I would like to clearly define what a refugee is so that what I say will be as coherent as possible.  A refugee is a person who has crossed international borders in order to escape a legitimate threat of persecution due to ethnicity or religion, natural disaster, or war.  The United Nations High Commission for Refugees officially issues the title of “refugee” upon these people who have fled.  Often refugees retreat to nations facing their own struggles, meaning that the situation in their new location is not much better.  Refugees can remain in camps for an indefinite period of time since they cannot be forced back into their home country under international law and the process to become a citizen of a new nation is usually arduous.

The United States accepts roughly 70,000 refugees per year.  These lucky few come to the U.S. where they have rights that are instantly recognized.  They come here with sponsors, organizations like the International Institute, who help cover the cost of basic necessities for the first couple months in America, offer English classes and other skill classes to create members of society who can contribute to the economy, and provide other services with successful integration as the goal.  While there is an initial cost associated with sponsoring these refugees, the return in investment typically trumps this initial burden.

This past week I had the opportunity to sit-in on a meeting with Pakistani journalists who were here to discuss the refugee process in the United States.  The journalists’ questions dealt with how the United States could sacrifice so many resources on refugees who often have no substantial ties to the U.S.  They wondered how Americans could see the refugee process as fair when so much was being handed to refugees who came here with almost nothing.

The answer that Anna Crosslin, the President and CEO of the International Institute, gave summarized the American spirit.  “We are a nation of immigrants,” she said.   Our country, despite a sometimes troubled history, was formed by the hardworking people of all backgrounds.  Despite all the qualms about immigration policy and who has a right to citizenship, Americans continue to believe that the American dream can become a reality for anyone willing to work towards it.

June 20th is World Refugee Day.  Wear UN blue, light blue, to show your support for refugees around the globe whose daily struggles demonstrate the ultimate strength of spirit.  Check The i next week to read my report on witnessing a citizenship ceremony.

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