Every August, St. Louisans gather in Tower Grove Park to enjoy food and entertainment from across the globe. The Festival of Nations is a beloved tradition, representing the vibrant multicultural community that is St. Louis. It’s hosted by the International Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that immigrants and refugees can find success in the region. T&S spoke with president and CEO Arrey Obenson to learn more about organizing the festival and the work the International Institute does all year.

What is the mission of the International Institute?
Our mission is to create opportunities for immigrants and refugees so they can thrive in the St. Louis community. This helps build a more healthy and prosperous region for all. The International Institute manifests this through several support services for new arrivals as soon as they get off the plane. We provide assistance with housing, health care, education, financial literacy and job preparedness.

How have you evolved your programs to meet the needs of people?
The federal government mandates that resettlement services be provided to refugees for 90 days, but we understand that it takes much longer for someone to settle into a new community. We’ve been thinking creatively about how we can support new arrivals. A new initiative we’ve launched is providing cellphones in partnership with T-Mobile. The first three months are free and then services are significantly discounted. Before the pandemic, a phone was luxury, but now, it is a necessity. The idea is that people are not just getting a phone but, more importantly, access to the internet. The phones act as hotspots that can support up to eight devices, so whole families can receive access. It also allows us to provide remote services.

What goes into organizing the Festival of Nations each year?
The Festival of Nations is organized by the International Institute and a group of volunteers, so it really is community-owned event. We start working on the next festival as soon as the current one wraps up, so we’ve been planning the 2023 event since last August. This year, we’re working on expanding the scope of the festival. Along with local performers, we’re bringing in more international ones.

Why is it important for St. Louis to have an event like the Festival of Nations?
St. Louis is a very diverse community. People from more than 190 countries call the region home. The Festival of Nations is a way to celebrate the beauty that lies in that diversity, discover rich cultures from around the world and embrace the power of coming together. It’s a moment to get to know our neighbors. We can walk in their shoes by tasting their food and learning about their art and music. The festival is only a weekend, but we hope that people take that spirit of celebration and make it an everyday occurrence. By doing so, we can reach people who feel like they aren’t being seen or heard, and St. Louis can become a more welcoming society.

Is there anything new people can look forward to at this year’s festival?
We’re really expanding the footprint of the festival this year. We’re essentially going from taking up half of Tower Grove Park to the whole park, so there will be more food and entertainment offerings. We’ve increased the size of the main stage, so we can bring in higher levels of performances. We hope that we can keep families in the park for as long as possible, discovering all of the rich cultures that make up St. Louis. We’re planning to have between 75 and 100 countries represented, which is a significant increase from previous years. New programming also is being introduced this year, including a health section where you can do yoga at the festival.

How can people support the International Institute?
Like with every nonprofit, grants can only go so far in completing our mission. We continue to have gaps in funding, and the Festival of Nations is one way to support our work. While the event is free to the community, purchasing a VIP or patron ticket helps the International Institute build a more multicultural St. Louis. All revenue is put back in the mission and goes toward providing support for new arrivals in the region. Every person we help thrive is an opportunity to build a more prosperous community.

For more information, visit iistl.org or festivalofnationsstl.org.

Photos courtesy of International Institute of St. Louis