Ocean City's guests

May 26, 2006

Virginia Biafore spotted the young woman sitting alone and frightened in the bus station four days ago. She was a college student from Russia freshly arrived in Maryland for a summer job. Only this was Ocean City and she was supposed to be reporting for duty in Cambridge, 60 miles away. So Mrs. Biafore did the only thing she could think to do: She gave her a ride. One more foreign student accommodated, thousands more to go.

Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the summer season for Ocean City and the time of year when foreign students arrive en masse for summer jobs. Most come from Russia and Eastern Europe, but Latin Americans come as well. They are united by a common purpose: Earn the most money possible over the next 12 weeks regardless of the hours needed to do it. An estimated 3,000 seasonal workers will show up this year under what's known as a J-1 Visa.

That's huge in a resort town with slightly more than 7,000 year-round residents. But as the importance of foreign students to Ocean City's economy has grown, so has the potential for problems. Ocean City's shortage of work force housing has grown acute in recent years as real estate values have skyrocketed. Students may live crowded together in rundown apartments. Sponsors, the private firms that arrange the visas and work, don't always look out for their clients (even though many workers pay $1,000 or more in advance to make these arrangements).

Last fall, Ocean City officials began taking a more active interest in the matter, thanks in no small part to Mrs. Biafore. The 68-year-old retired social worker read about the plight of foreign students last year and volunteered to help them. Now she heads a city-sponsored task force looking at quality-of-life issues for all seasonal workers. What Mrs. Biafore has discovered is that the students have rarely traveled outside their native countries before. They don't know how to deal with landlords or employers. And they are often fearful of complaining to authorities.

But changes are under way. This year, officials are distributing a brochure to educate new arrivals on how to obtain such things as short-term housing or a Social Security card. By summer's end, organizers hope to have surveyed all the students to learn more about their experience in town.

Much more needs to be done. The city's investment so far is minuscule. (Mrs. Biafore had to pay for the pamphlets herself.) And business leaders ought to be ponying up, too. Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. envisions a day when a nearby community such as West Ocean City is home to a veritable village for foreign students, a complex of dormitories and shops developed by a partnership of government and private interests. But at the moment, that's little more than a dream.

One thing is clear: Ocean City needs these workers. They are generally seen as superior employees - motivated and hardworking. Just ask organizers at Ocean City International Student Services LLC, a local firm that each year matches hundreds of foreign students with jobs. Now it's up to a community that prides itself on its hospitality to do a better job playing host to those who come to wash the dishes, make the beds, wait the tables and stock the shelves.

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