Celebrating 20 years of starting new lives

Group has helped many immigrants settle in Howard


November 05, 2001|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

With international jewelry and trinkets in one room, a cabaret singer in another, Chinese calligraphy and a spread of ethnic food at the center of it all, Foreign-born Information and Referral Network's annual fund-raiser last night at the Columbia Hilton Hotel was as diverse as the thousands of people it helps to settle in Howard County.

The network, which helps new immigrants assimilate to life in the United States, celebrated 20 years in Howard County with speakers who have benefited from its services, entertainment, and food and beverages donated by more than 20 restaurants and stores. About 350 people attended.

"It's one of those wonderful events where there are no boring speakers," said Helen Szablya, the president of the network's board of directors. "People just come to have a great time and get exposure to other cultures."

Szablya, a former Hungarian refugee, originally volunteered to be an interpreter for the network. "I have yet to get a call for my language skills," she said between hugs from a seemingly endless stream of people. Szablya said she has been board president for about two years.

She said the group serves about 2,000 people a year. About 300 volunteers support a 10-person paid staff.

Speakers included Fatima Said, an Egyptian immigrant who became a U.S. citizen this fall, and a lively group of preteen girls from Bosnia.

"Everybody who works at FIRN is very nice," Said said. "God bless FIRN. God bless Howard County. God bless America."

Founder Pat Hatch said she started the network upon returning to the United States after spending 2 1/2 years in Korea while her husband was in the military.

"I began to understand what it felt like to burn bridges behind you and start completely over in an unfamiliar place," Hatch said.

The $50 tickets to the event, together with a raffle and silent auction, contribute about 10 percent of the organization's annual budget, Hatch said.

Karen Marks, who lives in Carroll County and works at Arbitron in Columbia, explained why she - a natural-born American - and her 10-year-old daughter Elle attended the event.

"It seems like the only thing we do as a family is sports-related," she said. "This is a nice cultural event without being too much for a 10-year-old to process."

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