Foreign workers rely on O.C. `angel'

Overseas youths taken under her wing


OCEAN CITY — OCEAN CITY-- From across the parking lot at the Second Street bus depot, Anne Marie Conestabile quickly spots the girl among a dozen passengers stepping blindly from a beat-up Greyhound. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers, 19-year-old Hande Ari could easily pass as an American student. Not to Conestabile. Somehow, she knows.

Maybe it's because kids like Ari arrive clutching their bags, dead tired from days of travel, often at the mercy of bus schedules that deposit them in the middle of the night wearing a look of desperate anxiety. Conestabile has seen the look on the faces of thousands of young foreigners, lured here by the mystique of America and the promise of summer jobs that pay more than many people earn back in their homelands.

"Are you from Turkey, my dear?" she asks Ari. "Are you alone? I was expecting two Turkish girls," she says, enveloping the girl in a hug. "Don't worry, my dear. We'll get you settled. You are exhausted."

It has been seven years since Conestabile stepped in to aid two Polish students who approached and asked for help one Sunday after church. "It's really heartbreaking when a college-aged boy breaks down in tears in front of a stranger," she says. "Their faces just told everything."

Now, Conestabile, 56, works as the unpaid director of the International Student Outreach Program, run by a coalition of 12 area churches and based at St. Mary's Holy Savior Church.

She knows what it's like to arrive in a strange place, having immigrated to the United States from Italy at age 13. Her role is part dorm mother, volunteer rental agent, job broker, confessor and advocate for students from Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the globe who trickle in to Ocean City from late May to early July. For those who arrive at God-awful hours, with no idea where to go to fill the most basic needs, Conestabile is the woman to see.

Ari, in crisp but barely audible English, tells her she has been traveling for three days - flying from her home in Ankara to Istanbul to New York to Washington, then finally catching a bus to the beach. She has barely eaten.

Within a few minutes, Ari's bags are stashed in an apartment, equipped with a bunk bed, a single bed and a pull-out sofa, that Ari will share with three other Turkish students. The cramped accommodations will cost her $70 a week - a good deal for the well-maintained and renovated building.

A day later, after a shower, a meal and a night's sleep, Ari has taken the first step toward landing a job.

She has been to town hall, where volunteers set up shop two or three times a week to help students fill out the paperwork to get a Social Security card, a required ticket to work in the U.S.

Now, she is ready to set out for interviews that Conestabile has arranged with prospective employers.

Over the years, Conestabile has become the go-between for students, landlords and businesses looking for workers - as well as for dozens of volunteers eager to help the young foreigners who have become necessary for Ocean City's seasonal economy. The foreign students take jobs that American students usually won't, and stay well into fall for the resort's "second season."

Conestabile's name is generally the first that the foreign students know when they arrive looking for jobs - two or three jobs, if they're going to cover expenses and send money home to their families, or pay for college. Notices with her name and the phone number for the church outreach program are plastered all over town and handed out to new arrivals.

This year, her program has lined up money and volunteers to provide free meals at various church halls - sometimes for as many as 400 students, who also swarm over tables full of toiletries, linens, towels and pillows.

Raffle tickets can earn students everything from fast food gift certificates to the most coveted item for foot-weary students, new and refurbished bicycles.

After two or three years of pleading by Conestabile and other volunteers, Ocean City officials appointed a 22-member task force last winter to help organize services for students and to keep an eye on housing and employment abuses.

"A lot of our problems start because the kids are mostly very trusting and afraid to complain," says Virginia Biafore, 68, a retired social worker who heads the task force.

"I think things have been much better this year, particularly housing, because everyone knows there are a lot of us watching closely," says Biafore, taking a cell phone call as she heads to a bike repair shop with a donated 10-speed.

"Getting to know the kids this well is such a positive experience," she says.

The students are recruited over the winter and early spring by sponsors - for-profit companies and nonprofit agencies in the United States and abroad - that line up housing and contracts with employers.

Most students pay sponsoring agencies, some for-profit, some nonprofit, $1,700 to $2,200 to get four-month J1 work/travel visas, round-trip airfare and contracts for jobs in Ocean City.

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