Warm-hearted greeter

UND Social Work alumnus and former refugee Reggie Tarr recognized by White House for resettlement work in region

Reggie Tarr

Reggie Tarr, a UND social work alumnus who is the resettlement services site supervisor for New Americans at Lutheran Social Services in Grand Forks, was recently honored at a White House Cermoney for his efforts to resettle refugees in Grand Forks and the surrounding area. Tarr is a former refugee who came to the United States from Liberia. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Even in winter, Reggie Tarr says he doesn’t feel the cold.

“Grand Forks is a warm community,” said Tarr, a UND social work alumnus who is the Resettlement Services site supervisor for New Americans at Lutheran Social Services. “I don’t feel the cold because the people are so warm. That’s why I stay.”

Tarr recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he was honored at a White House ceremony for his efforts in resettling refugees. Nominated by the City of Grand Forks, Tarr was one of just 10 people in the nation to receive the honor.

“It’s not just one person who received the award,” said Tarr. “It’s every one of us. It’s a great honor for the City of Grand Forks.”

“We wanted to show off a little,” said Pete Haga, community and government relations officer with the Grand Forks mayor’s office. “We’re so proud of Reggie and his work. He’s been an outstanding partner since we first met him.”

Haga said Tarr has been a staunch advocate for people making new homes in Grand Forks and for the community in general.

“He spends so much time working with the community and its partners,” said Haga. “He has become one of our community leaders, and he’s a great resource in our efforts to provide a welcoming community.”

Tarr’s story

The awards event was part of President Obama’s “Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis” and coincided with Welcoming America’s Welcoming Week.

“The ceremony was wonderful,” Tarr said, who was happy that the work in the Grand Forks community is being recognized. One of the highlights, he said, was hearing former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright speak.

“Her experience as an immigrant is a powerful story,” he said. “It gave me energy to continue to do what we do.”

Tarr helps refugees, or New Americans, resettle in Grand Forks and the area. A former refugee himself who fled Liberia, Tarr received help from organizations and people to rebuild his life. Now, he pays back by helping other people rebuild their lives.

“It could happen to anyone,” Tarr said about becoming a refugee. “I needed to give back.”

Tarr coordinates refugee resettlement efforts in Grand Forks, making sure they are welcomed. Helping refugees find jobs is his main focus, and he also helps them find a place to live and register for school, and provides other assistance.

Lutheran Social Services resettles about 100 refugees each year in Grand Forks, averaging eight to 10 a month.

“We are at capacity,” he said. “We discuss the numbers with community partners.”

Changing perceptions

One challenge, Tarr said, is the gap between what people think he does and what his organization actually does.

Refugee resettlement is a humanitarian program, Tarr said. “Refugees don’t choose to run,” he explained. “They are fleeing, often without time to get money or a passport. We need to be able to open our arms, rescue people and give them a chance.”

Tarr remembers fleeing Liberia at 17, eventually landing in Grand Forks. He knew he wanted to help others that might be in his situation, and enrolled in the social work program at UND, graduating in 2012.

“My social work degree helps me do my work better,” he said. “UND helped me to do this. My education helped me do what I wanted to do in my life, which is give back to other people.”

While at UND, he began working for the New Americans with Global Friends Coalition as a volunteer. In 2011, he received the UND Undergraduate Student Civil Engagement Award.

Now that he’s graduated, his association with UND continues. Tarr does outreach to create awareness of his program by speaking to University education, social work and occupational therapy classes as well as multicultural groups. He also hosts a nursing class at Lutheran Social Services regularly.

He’s deeply involved in the community, serving on the Board of Directors for the Global Friends Coalition, which works to foster integration for New Americans and the Greater Grand Forks community.

The best part of his job, Tarr said, is meeting new people.

“Imagine meeting new people every month from countries all over the world,” he said. “Every time I meet people, I learn something. They may think I’m helping them, but I’m learning how to better serve people.

“It’s all about community. We are all one, and we must work together to make our community better.”