FeaturedNewsThe SouthSider

New head of International Institute brings personal experience, vision

TOWER GROVE EAST – When Arrey Obenson came to St. Louis in 2002, he had an experience that still influences him: He bought a car and had to pay 23 percent interest for six months before he could get better terms. He was an immigrant and had no credit.

Obenson, who came here from Cameroon, will use memories such as that when he becomes president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis on Monday.

“I hope to really understand the challenges people face when they first come here,” Obenson said.

Obenson succeeds Anna Crosslin, who had been president and CEO of the International Institute since 1978. During that time, the International Institute became the main provider of services for immigrants and resettlement programs for refugees. Obenson was one of more
than 60 candidates for the position.

“Arrey is a visionary leader who is passionate about our mission and who has the expertise to ensure IISTL’s long term impact as society and community needs rapidly change,” International Institute Board Chair Arindam Kar said in a statement. “His career has been dedicated to empowering others to find solutions to the world’s biggest challenges.”

Obenson is the co-founder and CEO of Transformunity, a company that works with organizations in more than 100 countries to fight such problems as poverty, inequality and climate change.

Prior to founding Transformunity, Obenson served as secretary general of Junior Chamber International, an organization of more than 150,000 young people in more than 100 countries.

He came to Florida to run the organization in 2002. He moved to St. Louis about two or three months later when the group’s international headquarters moved here.

Obenson became a U.S. citizen in 2009.

“We are living in a time like this in our country when the work of the institute has never been more important,” he said.

He sees it as important that people start seeing diversity as normal, and that people not see politics as a way to create change.

The life of the immigrant isn’t easy, Obenson noted. “Nobody wants to leave home. They just want to contribute to being a better community. They need to find home somewhere else.”

At the International Institute, Obenson is at the helm of an organization that serves 6,000 immigrants and has an annual budget of $7 million. With its headquarters now in the former St. Elizabeth Academy at 3401 Arsenal Street, it provides such services as immigrant resettlement, education
and finding jobs.

“I want to look beyond the immigrants we serve to serve this community,” Obenson said.

That especially applies to the organization’s annual party in Tower Grove Park in August. The coming of COVID-19 last year meant the event became virtual. Plans are to do the same thing this year.

In that, and in other aspects of the work of the International Institute, Obenson stresses greater use of technology.

He has written a newly published book, “Bridging the Opportunity Gap.” He is a member of the Cameroon Bar Association and holds a Master of Law degree from Washington University. He lives in the St. Louis area with his wife, Victorine, and their two sons.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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