Reggie Tarr has built a life in Grand Forks by helping fellow immigrants do the same, and now Washington, D.C., is taking notice.
Tarr will be honored today at the White House for his efforts in integrating new arrivals. The resettlement coordinator of the New American Services program at Lutheran Social Services first came to Grand Forks in 2003 -- about 13 years after he fled his home country of Liberia and landed in the neighboring African nation of the Ivory Coast.
Now, after another 13 years, he says he “decided to give back (to immigrants and refugees) because I know where they come from.”
“I myself have taken that journey before. I know their needs, their concerns, their worries, and so this job has been the perfect fit for me, and I’ve been working it ever since.”
Since Tarr arrived in North Dakota, he has worked with a host of local community groups, many while earning his bachelor’s degree in social work from UND.
Pete Haga, a community and government relations officer with the Grand Forks mayor’s office, said the city had been invited to submit a nomination for an attendant to the White House event through its affiliation with Welcoming America, an organization that promotes integration efforts across the country. Tarr’s visit to Washington coincides with the group’s “Welcoming Week,” which itself is part of the lead-up to President Obama’s Sept. 20 Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis.
Haga said there were some discussions that quickly identified Tarr as a local example of all the characteristics sought by Welcoming America. Haga described candidates as people who were “involved in community, worked hard and found success not just for themselves but for others, and played a positive role in the community in which they live.”
Tarr was selected to receive the honor shortly after the nomination went out.
Back at home, Tarr’s services are in high demand.
North Dakota takes in the greatest number of refugees per capita in the nation. Though there are arrivals from all over the world, those who have come most recently have been largely from Bhutan, Iraq, Somalia and Congo.
Hal Gershman, former president of the Grand Forks City Council, said he first met Tarr a few years ago at a meeting of representatives from groups involved in the integration process.
Gershman said Tarr had been a dedicated representative from the start and had demonstrated early on he was “very smart and very committed to the immigrant community.”
“Reggie has been an exemplary citizen of our town, and I think that’s how he ended up at the White House,” he said. “Think about that -- you come to the U.S., and through hard work and ingenuity, he ends up at the White House. That’s pretty slick, and I’m really proud of him.”
Gershman also praised a robust local civil society willing to help immigrant and refugee families on a volunteer basis.
Even though some might not be able to empathize exactly with the unique experiences that often come with that territory, he said the welcoming attitude and willingness to provide support have helped make a difference.
That emphasis on civil society helped Tarr put down roots in Grand Forks.
Tarr said he got his start in local community work while at UND, where he began as the chairman of a small group of fellow Liberians. That group eventually grew into the wider United African Community in Grand Forks, of which Tarr currently serves as executive.
During his time at the university, Tarr also won the 2011 Undergraduate Student Civil Engagement Award. He has served on the board of directors for the Global Friends Coalition, which focuses on refugee integration, as well as the Grand Forks Immigrant Integration Initiative. Tarr interned for the New American Services program at LSS before landing his current job there.
On Tuesday, Tarr spent the day sightseeing in Washington and preparing for the event, which consists of a tour of the White House gardens, a main program at the Old Eisenhower Building and a White House reception.
He said he was excited for the proceedings and thanked his family, as well as all of the different community groups he’s been involved with for allowing him to do the work that had earned the recognition.
While in Washington, Tarr said he hoped for an opportunity to speak with leaders of Congress to tell them firsthand of the work being done to integrate immigrants and refugees.
“Sometimes they need to know what’s going on on the ground, in our local communities,” he said. “I would tell them about refugees, how they’re contributing to communities all over the U.S. It’s a good thing to welcome people, and this event is all about welcoming people, so I’m going to remind them of that -- it’s a good thing to put in that effort.”