Visitors to Running Brook Elementary School are welcomed by signs in English and Spanish.
A Korean supermarket and department store has replaced a Super Freshgrocery at the crossroads of U.S. 29 and Route 40.
At Rafet's hair salon in The Mall in Columbia, 22 employees chat in languages and accents from eight countries.
Howard County's demographic portrait no longer is black-and-white. Drawn by the promise of good jobs and good schools, foreign immigrants are moving to Howard County in increasing numbers, changing the way the county looks, acts and sounds.
Latin rhythms vibrate through apartment complexes in Columbia's Wilde Lake village. The county library stocks books and tapes in 25 languages, among them Urdu and Hungarian. The Police Department is recruiting bilingual officers.
"Here you have [Columbia founder] James Rouse's vision of an integrated community," said Kinza Schuyler, an immigration counselor with Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), an organization that assists immigrants in the county and is the only one of its kind in Maryland.
In 1980, 5,300 foreign-born residents lived in Howard County. Ten years later, that had more than doubled to 11,300. Between 1990 and 1999, that number grew again as more than 5,200 immigrants settled in the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"I think it is very interesting and fascinating that Howard County is becoming such a diverse community," said John Shatto,Howard County courts administrator.
The increasing number of foreign immigrants has drawn the attention of the Horizons Foundation, which offers money to help community health organizations translate their brochures and information sheets into other languages.
In criminal cases, the court provides translators for the defendants and principal witnesses who are unable to speak and understand English. The list of translators includes those who speak Russian, Farsi, Persian, Portuguese, Arabic, Spanish, Korean and Urdu.
Though a few refugees have settled in Howard County with the help of local churches, many of the county's foreign-born residents have lived in the United States for some time and are leaving cities for the suburbs.
"It's for the same reasons that anyone else would want to go there," said Ralston Deffenbaugh,president of Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services in Baltimore.
"It's a pleasant community, the schools are good and there are jobs."
Coming to America
The pattern has been repeated across Maryland, with more than 130,000 immigrants coming to live in the state in the 1990s.
In the metro region, Baltimore County had the largest increase, with about 12,500.
The precise number of foreign-born residents in Howard won't be known until the latest census is tallied, but signs of the growing immigrant presence are everywhere.
In the middle of a weekday afternoon, business is brisk at the Lotte Mart in Ellicott City as mostly Korean shoppers select fresh fish and hoist 50-pound bags of rice into their grocery carts.
The store is the fourth in a chain that has outlets in Rockville, Fairfax and Silver Spring, said store manager D.J. Kim.
The estimated 2,000 Koreans who live in Baltimore and Howard counties are not enough to support the store, but this Lotte location draws shoppers from Delaware and Pennsylvania as well, Kim said.
Increasingly, non-Asians are discovering the store. Lotte offers tours and gives demonstrations on how to make kimchiand other Korean dishes.
In the Bethany Shopping Center on Route 40, signs in Korean mix with those in English, advertising tutorial services, tae kwon doclasses and real estate services.
Grace Lee said she and her husband opened their real estate office in the shopping center to serve their largely Korean clientele who wanted to buy houses in the area.
"Howard County has good schools, and in Korea, education is very important," said Lee, who immigrated in 1974 and lives in Baltimore County.
Helping to make a new life
Although Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties have more foreign-born residents, Howard has been a leader in helping immigrants make a new life in America.
Pat Hatch, who volunteered at her church to help settle refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s, noted the need for an organization to assist foreign immigrants.
Working with officials from Howard County Community College, in 1980 she started FIRN, which provides information and resources to immigrants.
Although other agencies assist refugees, FIRN is the only organization of its kind that will assist any Howard County resident who was born in another country, Hatch said.
During its first year, the organization helped 90 people from 12 countries. By 1998, that had grown to 1,800 people from 106 countries.
"Even today, we are still only scratching the surface of the need," said Hatch, who now works as the communications liaison for the Maryland Office for New Americans.