Baltimore Takes Lead in Refugee Resettlement

by Alex Roehrs
       A CENTURY AGO, the first glimpse of America refugees and immigrants had as they arrived in New York’s harbor was Ellis Island.
       Today, through the Baltimore Resettlement Center (BRC), the City of Baltimore is becoming another Ellis Island for newly arriving refugees.
       The BRC, at 3516 Eastern Avenue, is not just a welcoming center. It is a new experimental project focusing on providing refugees a “one-stop shopping” opportunity for much-needed services. Many refugees arrive with very few belongings and little knowledge of what awaits them. By offering tools they need, the BRC seeks to help refugees become self-sufficient as quickly as possible.
       An example of BRC’s work: the Macastena family--husband Idriz, wife Nerimane, and their 4-year-old son Besart--came here from Kosovo in August 1999. Besart was extremely traumatized. Today, only nine months later, the family has reached self-sufficiency.
       The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of five resettlement agenciesworking with the BRC, provided case management services to the Macastena family, such as taking Besart to a therapist working with Advocates for Survivors of Trauma and Torture.
       Ellen Porticone volunteered in giving English lessons and Shannon Sullivan and her family served as the family’s mentors and companions, acquainting them with Baltimore, transporting them to appointments, and taking them on shopping excursions. Donated furniture and household appliances furnished the Macastenas’ new home, an apartment in Reisterstown. Idriz has started a job at an insulation company.
       Though resettlement assistance smoothed the way, BRC officials note that the family’s success derives from their hard work and motivation to achieve self-sufficiency.

Coming to the U.S. Not a ‘Choice’

       Most refugees do not choose to leave their homes and countries. They flee due to fear of religious, political, social, or ethnic persecution.
       The BRC is currently primarily involved in resettling refugees from former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and Serbia. A growing number of refugees also originates from all over Africa, and a few are arriving in Baltimore from southeast Asia and Cuba. The center expects to resettle over 500 refugees during their first fiscal year, which began on October 1, 1999 and concludes on September. 30.

An Experimental Project

       The Baltimore Resettlement Center is an experimental public-private project funded by a federal grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Involved are the Maryland Office for New Americans, the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, and five voluntary agencies: the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the Foreign Born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), Lutheran Social Services (LSS), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Episcopal Migrant Ministries (EMM).
       BRC seeks to minimize adjustment and resettlement problems by providing a wide variety of services through the joint efforts of the various agencies involved. These include employment and housing services, language lessons, health screening, and eligibility screening for federal safety net programs. These services are easily accessible in or near BRC’s offices, easing the complexity of the process. If successful, the BRC will serve as a national model for refugee resettlement.
       The five nonprofits involved are among the oldest and most renowned refugee agencies in the nation. HIAS has been resettling refugees for over 118 years. FIRN is the local affiliate of the Immigration and Refugee Services of America, an organization that assists nearly 325,000 persons annually. IRC--founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein--provides help to refugees around the world. LSS has run an early self-sufficiency program over the past four years in which 97% of participants reached self-sufficiency in four months.
       Volunteers and donations are keys to the process. Volunteers are needed to serve as English tutors, companions or mentors. A few hours a week with a family or individual to offer support, help and encouragement makes a great deal of difference.
       Volunteers are also needed to serve as drivers, job coaches, office assistants, translators or special events organizers.
       All agencies involved in the project are in need of donated furniture and household items to help furnish the refugee homes. Sofas, coffee and lamp tables, dressers, TVs, radios and kitchenware are especially needed. Such donations, which are tax-deductible, will be picked up by the agencies.
       For information, to volunteer, or to make a donation, call the Baltimore Resettlement Center at 410-327-1858.

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This story was published on May 3, 2000.