The Strength of Diversity in STL with Arrey Obenson

“The history of St. Louis is one that is profoundly written by people coming from different parts of the world.”

Arrey Obenson

Welcome to Navigate STL Schools, a podcast.  

Today’s guest is Arrey Obenson, the president and CEO of the International Institute, a refugee resettlement agency in St. Louis. Arrey is also the author of Bridging the Opportunity Gap, a lawyer by trade, a husband, and a father. In this episode, Arrey sits down with Staci to discuss the important work being done by the International Institute in St. Louis to resettle refugees, build a more inclusive community, and help immigrant and refugee families find a school that’s best for them. 

  • Arrey’s K-12 story
    • Arrey grew up in Cameroon, a central African country on the Gulf of Guinea. The education system is different from the United States. 
    • Brought up in a rigorous private school system, Arrey’s educational experience emphasized heavy math and arithmetic. All you had to do as a child was study, not creativity or work and play. 
  • What is the most difficult thing for refugees and immigrant families to understand in the United States education system?
    • In many developing countries around the world, the teacher is always right and the teacher runs the classroom. 
    • People coming from other countries tend to be conservative in their opinions. They will not volunteer their opinion unless they are asked. 
  • International Institute and how it supports families
    • The International Institute started after World War I by integrating women into the workforce. They evolved into working with immigrants and refugees.  
    • They are the only resettlement agency in the St. Louis region and they’re working towards creating a more integrated community.
    • The International Institute provides a variety of services for refugee families including finding them houses, jobs, getting their kids in school, and assisting with English language training. 
    • For children, they collaborate with the school districts to help them bridge the gap between where they are and how they can catch up to education in the U.S.
    • They also do “Bridge to College,” to prepare immigrant and refugee high school students prepare for college.
  • Arrey’s Inspiration and unexpected encounters in his work
    • The history of St. Louis is one that is profoundly written by people coming from other parts of the world. With each generation, the arrivals have been different. 
    • After the first World War, a lot of people were fleeing persecution in Europe and came to settle in St. Louis. 
    • The International Institute realized the need for integration. The mission of the organization is to showcase the different cultures that have come from around the world and embracing those cultures is just as relevant now as it was in 1919. 
    • Immigration continues to provide support to the American economy, and when we don’t have immigrants coming into the country it stagnates our economy.
    • “In the city of St. Louis, we need to continue welcoming immigrants because that’s where we have the opportunity for growth.” 10:27
    • “What inspires me about the work we do is that ability to build a more inclusive St. Louis.” 10:35
    • The only way we’re going to flourish as a society is if we embrace these rich cultures and diversity.
  • A Refugee vs. an immigrant
    • A refugee is someone who is fleeing a country because of a conflict. The process is often extremely long and treacherous. 
    • Refugees can spend ten to twenty years in a refugee camp. When they arrive in the United States, they just want a peaceful place to call home.
    • The International Institute is a resettlement agency who has a contract with government agencies to assist refugees. 
    • Although the International Institute is a refugee resettlement agency, they also welcome immigrants to participate in their programs. 
    • When people come to the community, we want them to be successful because then the community becomes successful. 
    • We want to showcase the rich diversity of this community.
  • How are people selecting St. Louis to resettle in?
    • Immigrants typically come in groups. People go where other immigrants go.
    • When people are welcomed, they remember that and they tell their friends and new immigrants come. 
    • We need to position St. Louis as a welcoming community. 
    • People come for the good universities in St. Louis. 
    • Refugees may get assigned here, but they can decide whether or not they stay here. 
  • How can school communities and neighborhoods support these new families?
    • One of the most effective ways to help immigrants and refugees is to be welcoming. 
    • Show empathy and walk in the shoes of those who have come here, donate, and volunteer. 
    • Help us define St. Louis as a welcoming community, embracing diversity. 
    • For the school districts, Arrey recommends walking in the shoes of the children. 
  • International Institute’s partnerships with SLPS
    • SLPS and the International Institute have an excellent partnership. They prepare the children for school and they partner on ESL initiatives. SLPS teachers volunteer with English language training for refugee and immigrant adults. 
    • SLPS helped with developing and implementing the ESL classes that the International Institute offers. 
  • What are the things that immigrant and refugee families can consider when they’re looking for a school for their kid in St. Louis?
    • Access is important. Families need to be able to succeed and to do that they need to work. They need the school schedule to work with their work schedule. 
    • Early education availability is also key for the families when looking for schools. The International Institute tries to keep their clients in the city so they can get early childhood education free of cost. This is a huge incentive.
  • What is one thing that parents should know about going to school with children who are different from their own?
    • “Parents have a role in understanding that diversity is really a strength.” 27:00
    • It’s a responsibility of the International Institute to help this community understand that diversity has been key to our country’s success. 
    • The rich history of this city, of this community, is as rich as it is because people came from 
    • The future of the city largely depends on how we have that cultural mix.
    • We need to educate parents, because parents need to educate their children.