Women’s History Month Spotlight: AnnaMarie Bena

By USCRI March 18, 2024

We sat down with AnnaMarie Bena, Senior Vice President at USCRI, to discuss her career, how she ended up in this role, and USCRI’s work shining a light on the issues women and girls’ face.


Q: What led you to your current role?

AnnaMarie: My current role is a culmination, really, of all the positions I’ve had in the past. I was very much dedicated to refugee issues right from the beginning. When I went into the Peace Corps in Cameroon, there were urban refugees there because, at the time, Cameroon was relatively peaceful compared to other countries in the region.

After law school, I worked for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and when I came back to the US, I worked for the Department of Health and Human Services [HHS]. I was there when the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was first passed, so I was able to write the first policy guidance on trafficking benefits for survivors that came out of HHS.

Additionally, while I was at HHS, the Homeland Security Act passed and so the care for unaccompanied children who are migrating to the US without their parents became the responsibility of HHS as opposed to the former INS [United States Immigration and Naturalization Service]. I was involved with that transition from the former INS to a more child focused agency.

As I went through my career, these different things happened that I was very passionate about and I just continued to move forward. And when the position opened here at USCRI, it was about opening a home for unaccompanied girls, which very much appealed to me. Over my years here I’ve just added more and more to my portfolio.

I’ve been really lucky to move into positions that offer these opportunities to provide services to people, and in USCRI’s case, support women and girls who need assistance.


Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about what led you to the Peace Corps and that experience?

AnnaMarie: I don’t really know what led me to the Peace Corps. At some point in college, I got it in my head that I wanted to go into the Peace Corps, but I was really fortunate that I was sent to Cameroon.

It was a tiny village, almost near Equatorial Guinea and on the coast by the water. It was such a small village that it didn’t have electricity or running water and it was mostly dirt roads.

I was asked to teach English because Cameroon has both French speaking and English speaking parts of it. And so I was there in the French speaking zone to teach English at a junior high school. All of the teachers were men, and the majority of the students were boys. For me, coming in as a woman, I felt like I had the opportunity to encourage the girls in class because they would often be very quiet, so I was able to encourage them to speak up and to take their education seriously. And even though I’m American and I wasn’t from Cameroon, I think it was important for them to know that women can be teachers. Just because all the teachers happen to be men doesn’t mean that that’s the way that it has to be. It was an excellent experience to be in the Peace Corps and be able to help and support the girls in the village.


“When I’m thinking of Women’s History Month now, that’s what I’m thinking about, the women that  encouraged me and pushed me forward.”

– AnnaMarie Bena, Senior Vice President at USCRI


Q: Was there anything you think that helped you get where you are today.

AnnaMarie: When I look back, I feel like a lot of where I am today is because I was lucky.As I said, I was at the Department of Health and Human Services when two major laws were passed that provided care and assistance to groups that I really cared about and wanted to help. That was very lucky for me.

But I also think that because I knew that I wanted to work on these issues and gravitated toward them, they kind of came back to me. Even coming to work at USCRI, I thought what a great opportunity to be able to open a shelter for girls, and I didn’t want to miss that. And now that I’m here, I’ve been able to do so many more things. Again, that wasn’t something I planned.

Even our recent Keep Girls Dreaming campaign, where we delivered sanitary pads to girls in the refugee camps in Kenya, was not planned. It hadn’t ever been something that I was thinking about. But when we learned about the issue, I thought we can do something and we need to do something that is not a big lift for people here in the U.S., and we can make a major change for those girls.

When I see those opportunities, I go, and I follow them.


Q: Can I ask where the interest in children and girls came from?

AnnaMarie:  I think maybe it’s just because I was a girl. I think in many ways that is the reason. For example, the Keep Girls Dreaming campaign, I think about how difficult it is because it’s not something that we talk about a lot. For my generation, when I think back on that period of time, being a teenager and having your first period, we barely spoke about that and it was very embarrassing. So, I thought about that and then I thought, what if I had no access to sanitary pads or anything, and it was kept even more in the dark. I feel like as a woman, I can completely understand how horrible that would be.


Q: You touched on the Keep Girls Dreaming Campaign, where did that come from and what inspired that campaign?

AnnaMarie: The Keep Girls Dreaming campaign came about very naturally. We were planning the opening of our office in Kenya and so I went to Nairobi and our policy analyst, Victoria Walker, came with me. And while I was running around Nairobi, looking at potential new office space and meeting with stakeholders, Victoria went up to both the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, and she began working on a paper to talk about the education and protection issues for children in the camps, and had a strong focus on the girls in the camp.

One of their biggest needs is that they don’t have sanitary pads for the women and girls in the camps. We were really shocked because we had always heard there were  dignity kits that they would receive when they came into the camps and so that was taken care of, but with all the funding cuts, the camps no longer have sanitary pads.

And we really took that to heart. We could not believe that was the case. It felt really outrageous and unacceptable. With my history I should have known that of course things like this were happening. So, we talked about it, and we said, even if we do a tiny campaign, let’s reach out to everybody we know and see if they’ll contribute. And we had amazing contributors. In a very short period of time the money came in and we were able to buy half a million sanitary pads that will help 5000 girls for a year.

We saw it, it hit us hard and we knew we could do something. So we did. And this campaign is still ongoing.


Q: Can you tell me more about your current position and what it’s like to oversee so many departments at USCRI

AnnaMarie: I oversee our refugee resettlement work. I also oversee our home studies and post release services work which is for unaccompanied children. I oversee our two shelters, our legal programming, our policy and advocacy work, international work, and our communications. I think that the only way I’m able to do this job is because the directors who report to me are strong, well qualified, and hard working. All of the staff are good at their work and very committed. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to oversee all these programs.

But I really like that I get to be involved in all of the work that the agency is doing.


Q: What’s an average day like in this position?

AnnaMarie: My average day is 8 straight hours of meetings and then at the end of the day trying to catch up on any sort of emails or documents that I need to approve or memos I need to approve.

But that’s when I’m in the Arlington office, if I go to our other offices, it’s different. For example, last week I went out to our soon-to-be new shelter in Sacramento, California. So that was a completely different situation. I met with staff; I met with the permit office in Sacramento; I had phone calls with our landlord; I went to the shelter itself to see how it was doing. It’s just a very active time when I go on travel.

I also speak on webinars and at conferences and write. It’s a lot of working with the communications and the policy staff, that’s more of where my writing background comes into play. But a lot of times it’s meeting and speaking and providing guidance and supervision to our staff to make sure that they have what they need.

It’s very busy, hectic day when I’m in the office and then usually when I’m traveling it’s because I’m going out to see our work in the field.


Q: What’s the biggest challenge of this position?


I think the biggest challenge is the number of different areas that we work in that need attention. It’s just the variety of what we’re doing and needing to be able to switch gears quickly.

And then I think a secondary piece is we’re always thinking about how to make sure that we have funding so that we can provide the services to the different groups that we want to help. And that’s something that definitely weighs on my mind.


Q: What is the most rewarding part of the job?

AnnaMarie: My favorite part of the job is always going down to our shelter in Florida where we care for unaccompanied girls.

It’s amazing. When girls first come into the shelter, they’ve just come from the border and they’re wearing ugly grey sweat suits that they’ve been given by the Border Patrol or the transport company. And they come in and they look scared, they don’t know what to expect. They haven’t eaten and their feet are torn up. They’re just in a bad situation.

And then when they’re with us for a little while they start to be able to speak English and they’re excited about learning and they’re finally eating and they’re healthy and they’re connecting with their families and you just seeing them start to thrive. They’re with us for such a short time, but we always want to make sure that in that short time we’re giving them those basic things that they need so that they can go on the next steps in their lives with a good memory and they can hopefully achieve what they want to achieve.


Q: How do the other departments you oversee, such as policy for example, how do they support women and girls.

AnnaMarie: I think that with our policy team, we’re very able to help women and girls because we look at the issues facing these groups and then we’re able to write about it and speak about it. We’re able to share that information and really be advocates for women and girls, no matter their situation. Whether it’s a girl at a shelter, or it’s a girl who’s coming to see one of our attorneys for legal assistance, or if it’s a girl who needs behavioral health assistance, or medical services.

There are just so many ways that girls and women need assistance, and we will learn about what they need through our programs and then through our advocacy, we can go out and speak about what they need.


Q:  Do you have any advice to somebody who is looking at your experience in your and thinks this is what they want to do?

AnnaMarie:  It’s a good question because I obviously have a law degree and there are lots of different thoughts about the value of a law degree but I think that mine was very worthwhile.

When I was at the University of Notre Dame Law School, the Rwandan and Yugoslav war crimes tribunals came to order and so I was able to hear and see and understand what they did.

We also had an immigration clinic, so I was able to help asylum seekers. For me, that immediate experience while I was in school was really valuable.

And what I worry about sometimes is folks get a master’s degree or whatever degree they’re getting, and they don’t incorporate actual work and experiences into that. And I think that that’s really important, even if you’re an intern or you’re volunteering, but to get in there, do the work and see the work, even if you’re in the midst of getting a degree.

And so that’s how I really jump-started my career because by the time I went to apply for my first professional job, I had already had all these experiences because I just kept working while I was going to school.

So to me, if I’m looking at a resume from someone, I’m looking for the experiences as opposed to just the letters behind their name. That’s what I would recommend.


Q: What does Women’s History Month mean to you?

When I knew that you were going to interview me for Women’s History Month, what I started to think about were all the women in my life who were role models and mentors and coaches to me. I had so many along the way, professors and former bosses of mine that I look to.  Many of them were the first women to do what they did, and I saw them and thought, I can do that too.

And so when I’m thinking of Women’s History Month now, that’s what I’m thinking about, the women that  encouraged me and pushed me forward.


Other Women’s History Month spotlights: Dylanna Grasinger, Hila Moss


USCRI, founded in 1911, is a non-governmental, not-for-profit international organization committed to working on behalf of refugees and immigrants and their transition to a dignified life.

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