A new area, a new life

More refugees find benefits, challenges of move to suburbs

Local agency joins effort

July 11, 1999|By Zanto Peabody | Zanto Peabody,SUN STAFF

More and more refugees are calling Columbia home as a local advocacy group pushes to help them make lives in the suburbs.

Columbia-based Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN) has joined with three Baltimore agencies to create a prototypical regional refugee clearinghouse, Baltimore Resettlement Center. By combining resources, member agencies of the Center plan to double their capacities to relocate refugees to the metropolitan area.

The center, which assisted 70 refugees last month alone, plans to settle more than 300 for the year, mostly in Baltimore. FIRN will be responsible for about 60 of the 300, many of whom will come to Columbia, where the organization has relocated 12 families this year.

FIRN is the center's only suburban agency. The other three -- Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services -- have offices in Baltimore, where they place most of their clients.

FIRN's challenge goes beyond the usual problems involved in relocating refugees.

"They are not like immigrants who came to this country with a sponsor family and a place to live," said Bonny Knight, FIRN's director. "They are reluctant travelers, all but bare-naked when they come through the door. They have left -- by no choice of their own -- their whole world behind."

In Baltimore, refugees can find comparatively inexpensive housing and extensive public transportation. Columbia, like most other suburbs, can offer jobs, but it has limited public transportation and affordable housing.

Enter the Urban Rural Transportation Alliance with a county Department of Housing and Community Development grant for up to $50,000 to provide refugees with rides to and from work. Funding began July 1.

"The need to get to work in the first two or three months, when they don't speak English, is urgent," said URTA spokeswoman Judy Pittman, adding that while refugees may take time to master the language, they need an immediate source of income.

With jobs and transportation secured, FIRN moved to focus on housing. In late June, the organization appealed to county government to consider widening the choices for affordable housing in its master plan, which is soon to be updated.

"[Affordable housing] is an important part of our planning for residents, whether they come from 1,000 miles away or 10,000 miles away," said Leonard Vaughan, Howard County director of housing and community development. "Howard County's high development costs are dictated by the market, and I don't see that changing. All we can do is look at zoning and try not to do anything to add to the cost of housing."

Beyond the housing obstacle, Columbia offers a community paradox. By design it presents a model of ethnic integration, a chance for refugees to work and live alongside people of different ethnic backgrounds and merge into the culture.

Knight said, "They could come to Columbia and not feel isolated -- the community is used to welcoming new people."

But Columbia has no Little Italy, Chinatown or barrio, neighborhoods where ethnic minorities sustain their own culture and business centers. In the past seven years, Howard County has attracted the fewest number of immigrants in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

"In the city, they have a better chance of establishing a community and an economic structure they can call their own," Knight said. "If someone wants to open a restaurant selling food from Bosnia, she has a better chance of succeeding in a Bosnian community."

However, Pat Hatch, who started FIRN out of her briefcase in the late '70s, challenges the idea that immigrants should be corralled into pockets of the city. Hatch, who now works with the Maryland Office for New Americans, said she wants to see more refugees settle outside the Beltway.

"We have had a philosophy of settling refugees in some of America's toughest urban areas," Hatch said. "Now we see that may be like throwing babes in the woods. I don't think that is necessary anymore."

Knight said figuring out who should come to Columbia and who should go to Baltimore is easy: Send families with no children or with very young children to Baltimore, where they can have the support of their compatriots. Send families with teen-age children to Columbia, where public schools are better.

Although its refugee population is small, Columbia has the beginnings of a Bosnian community in the Guilford Gardens Cooperative Apartments complex, where FIRN has placed four families -- 14 refugees in all. The organization has plans to lease six more apartments there this year.

"Most Bosnians want to be together so they're not lonely," said Vladimirka Stanic, who has been in Columbia for six months.

Beyond any ethnic or national bond, Stanic said, there is a social bond, that of a group of people who were professionals or skilled craftsmen who now accept livelihoods below the levels of their pre-war lives.

Stanic, who completed her studies as a civil engineer, now is a clerk for FIRN. Her aunt, Ruza Domazet, an insurance examiner, and cousin, Ilyja Domazet, an army medic, are prepared to accept "any type of work" while they study English.

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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