New Leaders in Immigrant and Refugee Services
Last month, we had the opportunity to virtually sit down with two leaders in immigrant and refugee services in Missouri. Sam Moog became the Director of Refugee Resettlement at RIS in Columbia, Missouri, December 1, 2020, and Arrey Obenson stepped into his role as President and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis February 1. Being relatively fresh on the scene, we wanted to get to know them a bit better as well as introduce them to all of you as they begin to settle into their roles and dive into this work with the prospect of busy days ahead.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What is your favorite meal to cook or to eat?
Sam: My partner is definitely the cook in the household, so he’s usually the one cooking. But my favorite meal lately, maybe for the past year, is a Burmese Tea Leaf Salad from Tiger Chef in Columbia. That’s our go-to takeout/delivery and, pre-pandemic, dine-in place. And I believe it’s owned by an immigrant family in Columbia.
Arrey: For me, it is fried plantains, and I would have that with beans, black beans or tomatoes, too. Fried plantains is typically very much eaten along the West African Coast from Gabon all the way to Sierra Leon, maybe even all the way to Senegal. It’s a West African Coast thing. And I know that it’s eaten a lot as well in South America, Venezuela, and places like that. I just had some this morning. And I do prepare it; it’s deep fried in oil. Now, it’s becoming endangered because of these air fryers. Talking about making fried plantains in an air fryer, it’s going to take away all the good stuff!
What is your favorite placed you’ve travelled to?
Arrey: I have visited about 106 countries, so it’s a tough choice to make, but I have my top three that remain unbeaten. The first one is Canada, the Calgary region of Canada. And all three are the same level because I see different things. Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. They are all very unique places, and the experiences that I had there were very unique.
Sam: Especially during the pandemic, it’s home places that have been calling me. I didn’t grow up in northern Vermont/New Hampshire, right on the border, but my mom is from there, and we have some family there. I spent winter vacations and—especially when I was younger—summertime there, as well. So that’s kind of my heart answer because it’s just a sentimental place and wildly beautiful.
What inspired you to get into this line of work, serving refugees and immigrants in the community?
Arrey: I’m going to be frank. One, I’m an immigrant. But I think I discovered a lot more of the work of the International Institute when I started looking at the position. I always knew that the International Institute was here, but I didn’t really understand the scope of the work that’s been done. But when I applied for this position, really one of the things that stuck with me, was this: “Out of many, one,” really the motto of the United States. I think it is the foundation of what this country is, and it must not be forgotten, and it must not be taken for granted. Because just as this country has been built by people who have come here, the future will be built by people who continue to come here. And in coming to America, people should be given the opportunity for them to not just survive, but for them to part of the fabric of this country and contribute to designing it to be what their dreams are.
Sam: When I was in college, I began volunteering with the local Burmese refugee community in Burlington, Vermont. That was what really got my heart into refugee resettlement work. I went on a personal reflective journey as a white American woman, non-immigrant: What is my role in immigrant justice worldwide? In college, I had the opportunity to do a couple of internships and also in graduate school an internship internationally working with different organizations on immigration detention issues in Lebanon or in the Middle East, or with CARE International in Jordan on their urban refugee protection program—I went through a process of reflecting on what my role would be, where I would fit. And I felt like in United States in refugee resettlement, creating welcoming communities and being part of that was where I saw my role.
What is the most rewarding part of your job or this work?
Sam: Working together to create and facilitate a welcoming environment, that’s incredibly rewarding. Working with all of the staff, and the team – when our team pulls together to serve families, that is incredibly inspiring, rewarding. The work of the team and engaging the community in our work.
Arrey: What I find rewarding at this time is to find out in three weeks that there is a vibrant community that is supporting the work of immigrants and refugees. There are people on this team at the International Institute that are very passionate about the work that they do. As I’ve spoken to potential partners and donors and board members, it is reassuring especially after the last 4 years to see that there are people who believe in what America represents. We’re hopeful of what the next four years will be, of what the future will be. And we’re not only hopeful, every other day the people I talk to are very determined about continuing this work.
Has anything surprised you about your agency or the community since you’ve started working there?
Arrey: What I’ve learned that really surprised me is how complex the work of serving immigrants or refugees is. How high-pressure it is. Just knowing that within 90 days you have to have resettled people – I’m really surprised that that happens in 90 days. How there’s always a sense of urgency from the minute of notification to when you have to get all of the infrastructure ready for them from housing to clothing to furniture to work to training to orientation, all of that happening within 90 days. And how complex it has become with COVID with quarantining for another 14 days inside those 90 days. It’s an orchestra that needs to be aligned right.
Sam: Alongside [the complexity of the work], the breadth and depth of knowledge that our agency has and staff have over the years of working in resettlement. It’s pretty incredible. All of that practiced knowledge, all of that institutional knowledge. From housing to navigating specific issues – it’s incredibly complex and requires a breadth and depth of knowledge that is really something. Columbia is an incredibly welcoming community to refugees and immigrants. And there’s an immense desire for community engagement in refugee resettlement. I don’t think I was necessarily surprised by it, but that was definitely something remarkable that became more apparent as I took on this role.
How do you anticipate instituting changes due to the rapid increases in arrivals?
Sam: For us, and I imagine for everyone, it’s about capacity-building. Thinking about increased community engagement in resettlement. Taking it step by step is important, laying the foundation. It’s been a lot of reviewing our policies and procedures, updating those, establishing partnerships with other agencies, refreshing our referral system, getting staff trained who haven’t worked on R&P (Reception and Placement) before ensuring we have the foundation for when things do pick up and we do have more arrivals. But essentially step-by-step because there is so much work to be done.
Arrey: I know that with the surge in arrivals, there is also going to be a surge in the controversy around arrivals. I think that we as a community have to think proactively about how we communicate around that and how we prepare the wider community for those arrivals, how we engage them with those arrivals so that we’re not stuck with the problem, so that we can focus on the opportunity that these arrivals present. I really want us to be conscious of that and not wait until people get here and then start dealing with that. But everything that we do now, everything that we say now, we should be preparing the community for these arrivals.
Knowing that advocacy will play a key role moving forward, how do you plan to lead your agency in this very important role down the line when it’s going to be crucial to communicate and educate?
Arrey: We need to build a coalition around the idea that refugees play a key role in our society. When they come here, they come here with the goal of also contributing significantly to our society. And their presence here only enriches our experience. And so we need to build a kind of coalition where we’re bringing together people to talk about what the future of our community is going to look like. That coalition begins by one, communicating around the idea. Two, looking for allies and building allies in unusual places. We in the immigrant services space have the tendency to speak to people in the immigrant services space, but we need to broaden the conversation and reach out to the unusual suspects, so to speak, and engage them. It would mean that we have to think creatively about how we do that, the stakeholders that we identify and how we engage them. I know it’s not going to happen overnight. So we have the opportunity now, because we know what’s coming, to invest in building this kind of environment that will be welcoming when it does happen.
Sam: So Columbia, I think, is a significantly different context than one of the larger cities like St. Louis or Kansas City or even Springfield. In St. Louis, they have the ISPN (Immigrant Service Providers Network)– there’s no such thing in Columbia. So I think for us it’s starting there. Gathering the agencies, gathering the folks that are working with the immigrant and refugee community first and establishing those kinds of coalitions. That’s definitely something that I see as a goal and a need for our community. There have been in different shapes or forms entities that have tried to play a similar role but haven’t necessarily been sustainable over the years, and I think now is really the time where our agency could play a leadership role in reinvigorating those kinds of service provider networks and folks doing this work. I would love to be part of conversations statewide. My experience is that those conversations seem to be really focused on the major metro areas, and I would love to be involved and be able to speak from a different context in those conversations.
Arrey: We cannot take for granted the almost 250 years of progress that this country has made, but the last four years have demonstrated just how fragile progress is. People like us that do this kind of work must always continue to work at it to make sure that people who come here are given a chance, are given an opportunity, to participate in development. We have to continue to build our constituencies so more and more people can see the value in the work that we do and can appreciate why it is necessary for us to continuing doing this.