Emma Tobin’s time at Hampshire College was formative – but it was her semester spent away from it that influenced her career path the most. An Anthropology student interested in Tibetan Buddhism, she spent a semester living with Tibetan communities in India and Nepal – as close as she could get to Tibet itself at a time when the region’s political situation made it difficult to hold a US program in Tibet. Although her program wasn’t focused on Refugee Studies, its position in exile communities was impossible for Tobin to ignore. While there, she grew close to her host family, and realized that what actually interested her was not the religion they practiced, but the fact that they were refugees. As a result, she became “invested in this question of displacement, of what it means.”
After Tobin spent her early career working in refugee communities abroad, she returned home to Massachusetts to work at the International Institute of New England, a non-profit refugee resettlement organization. She’s now the Managing Director of IINE’s Lowell site. Having grown up along the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, Tobin is familiar with the community and its challenges. She points to a particular obstacle facing immigrants in the Boston Area – healthcare employment. There’s a gap, she tells me, between the great healthcare available in Massachusetts and the immigrants who come into the community. Many who arrive want to pursue careers in healthcare, but “there are just endless barriers to making that happen.” Creating pathways for these folks may sound impossible to some, but Emma Tobin calls the task “very tangible.” I ask her how she sees her future. “I just want to keep looking for solvable problems,” she says, “and lending my hard work and occasional creativity to try and solve them.” She adds, “And support people to live with dignity and access to the things they deserve.”
Although Tobin has a Master’s from Oxford, she feels that she learned the bulk of her skill set through working, and she has a healthy skepticism about the value of academic degrees in the field. “It’s kind of crazy they give you a Master’s degree, because it’s actually only ten months,” she says with a laugh. Tobin worked at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Center after completing the program, and her supervisor put her through a development bootcamp of sorts. She paraphrases his words on her first day: Listen, I know the master’s degree that you just got – I know that you think you know how to do international development work. You don’t. I am going to teach you how to do an impact evaluation, I’m going to teach you all this terminology. Tobin acknowledged to her boss that she hadn’t learned that in graduate school; “It was kind of humbling.”
Tobin loves to write. She values creativity in her work, but tells me she’s always felt a tension between creativity and hard science. Tobin recalls a particular professor at Hampshire who helped her find a balance. A social science researcher and novelist, the professor helped her “to understand that you can do work that betters the world or changes someone’s life maybe, that still has some sort of artisticness or humanity to it. It doesn’t have to just be, here’s point A to point B, and I’m going to deliver this service and then we’re done. You can do work that’s beautiful, and still societally impactful.”
That philosophy shines through when she talks about her relationship with the refugees and immigrants she serves. Even though she’s in a staff management role, Tobin makes a point of getting to know IINE’s clients on an individual basis. A conversation during a focus group she oversaw near the beginning of her time there clarified her understanding of the refugee experience. The researcher asked a middle-aged, Congolese man in the group how the United States has differed from his expectations – “a pretty typical question that people ask refugees, and maybe immigrants too,” she says. The man, who Tobin had never seen show much emotion, started to answer the question through the interpreter, then looked down at the floor in embarrassment. He admitted that he was ashamed to say what he thought the United States was going to be. His vision of the US, influenced by Hollywood’s depictions of wealth, was at odds with his experience resettling and living as a low-income person. She knew intellectually that the resettlement experience in the US was fraught with problems. “But that moment, I think, is when I understood it emotionally for the first time.”
Tobin’s work has taken her across the globe, but she has always been focused on the communities she serves. From Nepal to Lowell, she believes that local organizations and the people that serve them are the backbone of resettlement work. I ask her what impact the Trump administration’s policies have had on her work at IINE. There’s one silver lining, she says: the high level of support from local communities for organizations serving refugees and immigrants. “They see that our federal administration is not going to do it, so they kind of need to step up.” Harmful policies from the White House appall Tobin, but they don’t discourage her. “I am still so inspired by the communities where I work,” she says, and by “the individual people and the coalitions of people, the organizations that do incredible things and make incredible things happen.”
In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and impenetrable bureaucracies, what continues to motivate Emma Tobin is the search for solvable problems.