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‘This Is A Long Game’: International Institute Sees Needs, Opportunities As St. Louis Welcomes Afghans

International Institute of St. Louis
The organization's president and CEO, Arrey Obenson, joined host Sarah Fenske on Monday's noon show with the latest.

As the International Institute of St. Louis anticipates resettling a wave of Afghan refugees in the region, the organization is focused on arrivals — and on enlisting community members to help.

“I really want to impress on the community that this is a long game,” Arrey Obenson, the International Institute’s president and CEO, told St. Louis on the Air. “It is not, ‘Oh, we welcome them now and that’s it.’ We are going to be at this for the next year or so.”

Arrey Obenson will become the next president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis on February 1.
International Institute of St. Louis
International Institute of St. Louis
Arrey Obenson began leading the International Institute of St. Louis in February.

The organization has helped to resettle 696 Afghans since 2010. But with its new commitment to accept up to 1,000 refugees in the wake of Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government falling, Obenson foresees real needs as well as opportunities.

“The biggest challenge that we’re going to have, that I keep saying to people, is housing,” he said, particularly quality affordable housing.

The agency gets as little as 12 hours’ notice that new refugees are headed to St. Louis — little time to arrange housing, much less have it set up with furniture and other essentials.

In recent weeks, 53 Afghans have arrived in St. Louis, Obenson said. The International Institute has been able to manage that. But Obenson said a “wave” involving as many as 20 people arriving per day could require additional short-term housing help.

“It may mean that we start looking for campuses where we can house people for a transition,” he said, adding that he’s hoping to work with area universities on that front, among other potential partners.

Obenson said he and his colleagues also view the coming influx of new St. Louisans as an opportunity to build a stronger community.

“We have to think about them as our new neighbors and what does that mean and what do they bring,” said Obenson, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cameroon about 20 years ago.

He struck a hopeful note about St. Louis’ appeal to refugees looking for a new home.

“There is the International Institute in St. Louis … there is an Afghan community, and there is a community that is willing to welcome Afghans,” he told host Sarah Fenske. “And we also never anticipated that there would be this sudden need for action within a short period of time, which gives us more reason to think we’re going to see some really huge arrivals here. And finally, we have had significant experience not just with welcoming Afghans but welcoming Afghans with the special immigrant visas.”

Obenson said he hopes the agency’s commitment to resettle 1,000 Afghans could be revised upward as the number of refugees continues to increase.

In addition to describing the processes involved, including getting newcomers back to work and school within 90 days of their arrival, Obenson emphasized how reliant the International Institute is on the St. Louis community to provide the needed resources.

Listen: International Institute Leader Details How Organization Will Help Newly Arriving Afghans

The federal government provides a one-time sum per refugee to agencies like Obenson’s. The money is meant to cover costs of refugees' first 30 to 90 days in the U.S. But, Obenson said, it’s not nearly enough.

“We lean a lot on the community to help us close the gap,” he said, noting that contributions include cash gifts, in-kind donations and giving of time and expertise.

In-kind donations can be dropped off at the International Institute during its operating hours.

“Anybody that has donations that are more than two boxes, [call] the International Institute, and we will make an appointment for that drop-off. We want to have the capacity to be able to support that,” Obenson said.

Obenson began leading the organization in February after the retirement of longtime CEO Anna Crosslin, who’d served in that role since 1978. He acknowledged that Afghan resettlement efforts are a big challenge given how new he is to the role. But at the same time, he said, it’s a great way to learn on the job and make important community connections.

“I wouldn’t have asked for a better time or a better way to be brought up to speed in terms of what the job entails,” Obenson said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.