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Neighborhoodsby Laura Fay7:50 amJun 17, 20230

Welcome Center in downtown Baltimore aims to help immigrants find the better life they seek

Opened by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the center aims to offer a host of services and a holistic approach

Above: Norma Asimba, a Kenyan client of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service’s workforce development program. (Julian Spath for LIRS)

Norma Asimba never thought immigrating to the United States would be easy.

But upon arriving in the states in early 2020, having uprooted her life in Kenya in search of greater opportunities for herself and her then two-year-old son, Asimba almost immediately found herself confronted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There was this disease, and then there was a lockdown and everything just came to a standstill,” said Asimba, who now resides in Columbia. “It was just a lot to handle.”

Eventually, the young mother found her way to the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), which helped her find a job and become self-sufficient.

She expressed her gratitude to LIRS as it opened its new “Welcome Center” earlier this week on the third-floor of Christ Lutheran Church at the Inner Harbor.

The faith-based nonprofit has been establishing these case management centers across the country amid the recent surge of refugees and asylum seekers to the U.S.

Recalling her own struggles to find help, Asimba told The Brew the LIRS was especially helpful because it combined so many services in one place.

“I needed to know where do I start from? Who do I speak to? Where will I get help?” she said. “Nobody tells you these things when you come into this country as an immigrant.”

Building on Baltimore Legacy

For LIRS, opening a Welcome Center in Baltimore was a no-brainer. The organization has long had deep ties to the city, which has served as its national headquarters since 1999.

The organization has grown dramatically, expanding from an 80-person operation in 2019 to 440 today, with about half of those employees based in the greater Baltimore area.

“We thought part of that incredible growth really should be anchored in the city that we’ve called home for decades,” Timothy Young, director of public relations for LIRS, told The Brew.

As Young sees it, this relationship will be mutually beneficial as Baltimore continues to shrink and the the area’s immigrant population grows.

Between 2010 and 2020 census data shows the city lost 5.7% of its residents. Over the same period, the foreign-born population in the Baltimore-Towson-Columbia metro area grew by 22.4%, according to one report.

City leaders have long viewed immigrants and asylum seekers as a way to reverse Baltimore’s population slide.

Krish Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, at June 6 ribboncutting for its new Welcome Center in Baltimore. (Philip Laubner for LIRS)

Krish Vignarajah, LIRS president and CEO, at the June 13 ribbon-cutting for its downtown Baltimore Welcome Center. (Philip Laubner for LIRS)

Longer-term Assistance

The new center, which expects to help 150 families in its first year of operation, aims to unify services that are often scattered.

Employing two case workers, a pathway builder, career navigator and volunteer coordinator, the staff will take a broad approach to immigration aid, helping new refugees and asylum seekers with everything from finding affordable housing to legal assistance to the job-search process.

Too often, Young said, such aid only covers the initial “sprint to self-sufficiency.”

“I was in a very tough place. I’d gotten an eviction notice. Financially, I was just overwhelmed”  – Norma Asimba.

The demand for immigration aid in the U.S. has skyrocketed over the last decade; tight timelines ostensibly allow organizations to help more people. But the quick-turnaround approach can also leave new immigrants treading water in both their personal and professional lives.

When she first arrived, Asimba said she was pushed by aid groups towards jobs that were exhausting and unfulfilling. And if she couldn’t find a job within a short period, typically three months, she would be cut off from their services.

“I was in a very tough place,” she recalled. “I’d gotten an eviction notice. Financially, I was just overwhelmed, very much drained.”

Really Listening

The Welcome Center is designed to promote economic empowerment and social mobility.

Its New American Cities Initiative program connects newly arrived immigrants with career specialists, who work with them one-on-one to design individual career plans.

“There’s kind of a misconception out there that refugees are these low-skilled people without much to offer. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Young.

By encouraging clients to design individualized career plans, LIRS attempts to reverse that stereotype.

Its career specialists then help individuals through all stages of the job application process, from reading resumes and conducting mock interviews to negotiating job offers.

“There’s a misconception that refugees are low-skilled people. That couldn’t be further from the truth”  – Timothy Young.

Other refugee-aid organizations that Asimba had contacted pushed her towards hourly jobs she had little interest in. Despite having a background in marketing and communications, she was referred for jobs in health care.

LIRS was different.

“They give you all available opportunities, and they really listen to you and where you are going to apply,” Asimba recalled.

The first job she landed, a digital-content marketing position, was in her field, but was not a perfect fit. Working with her career specialist, she found a project management job that was fulfilling and allowed her to work remotely.

Former Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service staffers Miji Bell abd Katrina Klettke Straker, at ribbon-cutting for the Welcome Center, speak with client Norma Asimba. (Philip Laubner for LIRS)

Former LIRS staffers Miji Bell abd Katrina Klettke Straker speak with Norma Asimba at the Welcome Center. (Philip Laubner for LIRS)

Hope for the Future

Both Young and Asimba were optimistic about the new center’s future.

“It feels like the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” Young said.

For Asimba, there was a conviction that the Welcome Center could help those like her realize the dreams that brought them to this country.

“It was about my desire and will to really find something that I could do professionally to keep me and my son afloat,” she said.

“It was to be able to give him that life that I was praying for as a mother.”

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