What Makes a Healthy Community?


Bob_circleIn the mid-90s the Bosnian war brought thousands of Muslim refugees to St. Louis. As the resettlement began, many locals had a predictable and understandable reaction – fear of the unknown. But time passed, and both native-born St. Louisans and the refugees learned from one another. The Bosnians settled into their new country, went to local schools, bought homes, and started businesses. A mostly vacant and crumbling area of South St. Louis was revitalized, becoming known as “Little Bosnia.” As of 2013, there were 70,000 Bosnians living in our region, making St. Louis the city with the largest Bosnian population in the world outside of Sarajevo. Not only did this migration save lives and families, it also brought a new wave of economic prosperity and well-being to St. Louis.

This is a familiar pattern in the U.S. It happened with Vietnamese refugees more than a decade earlier, and before that with Irish and Jewish people, to name only a few. The United States was formed as a melting pot of cultures and backgrounds, and it is one of the reasons we are exceptional. One of the greatest things about the United States is its diverse makeup and more importantly, our willingness and ability to embrace and live, work, and play with people who are unlike us. Our Missouri communities prosper when neighborhoods reflect that inclusiveness. Our residents thrive and are healthiest when neighborhoods are well-rounded and balanced – both socially and economically, and this is what immigration does for Missouri. It has made us healthier!

Sharing our country with others that are looking for a better life is a win for us all. Evidence suggests that welcoming immigrants leads to more innovation, a better educated workforce, and higher overall economic productivity, making our communities more vibrant, similar to what took place in South St. Louis when Bosnian families arrived; neighborhood transformations started to occur. This is the true nature of health, when all of the structural conditions that help to shape an individual and its environment work together for the common good.

But it isn’t just urban communities that are benefiting from immigration. In rural Iowa, where populations had begun to dwindle, immigrants have helped to revitalize towns. Iowa’s Latino population increased by 84 percent over 10 years, which helped to stabilize their struggling economy. Certain rural areas in Missouri have also experienced this surge in its Latino population as well. Missouri Foundation for Health became involved with immigration work with McDonald County in Southwest Missouri after health clinics recognized the need to better accommodate their more than 2,100 non-native English speaking patients – 1,311 of whom are from countries in Latin America. A partnership with the International Institute Saint Louis helped provide direct health-related training so that patients could understand the care they needed.

This is the beauty of America, land of the free. We are an attractive country because of our values – protecting the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its citizens. History has shown that when immigrants and refugees come to American towns and cities, we all benefit by having healthier communities, and in the long run, we are stronger for it!