On the third floor of the Christ Lutheran Church at the Inner Harbor is a clinical room where migrants — particularly refugees and asylum seekers — can seek mental health services.

Other rooms on the floor are where immigrants can find caseworkers to help them navigate the new country where they have just arrived, all while coping with what they left behind.

The new case management center, one that promises to be the most “comprehensive” of its kind serving refugees and asylum seekers, opened in Baltimore Tuesday, its creators citing a surge in arrival of refugees and asylum seekers to the city in the past few years.

The “Welcome Center,” which took some cases prior to its official opening, will have two case workers, a career navigator, a pathway builder and a volunteer coordinator that will connect recent arrivals to find affordable housing, enroll and support children in public school and provide help with medical care and legal referrals. The program will also provide mental health support services to address trauma that many families experience in their home countries and while traveling to the U.S.

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Between October 2022 and May of this year, 450 refugees were resettled in the state, many of them arriving from Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma, according to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Between January and March of this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported more than 990 children arriving in Baltimore who migrated to the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a national faith-based nonprofit organization and resettlement agency, says the demand for social and community services has “significantly increased” in the past decade. But the number of organizations and caseworkers in the Baltimore area hasn’t been able to keep up with the pace.

Kevin Meadowcroft, the manager of the Welcome Center, said they are expecting to hire more people in the coming months. Over the past few weeks, caseworkers have taken more than 60 cases, he said, and are expecting to take 150 cases in the next few months.

Norma Asimba, an immigrant from Kenya who spoke at the ceremony, arrived to the U.S. in February 2020, not too long after COVID-19 was declared a global public health emergency. It was challenging to navigate the system on her own for a while, she said, so she began looking for programs that could help her. She found out about the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which connected her with someone who reviewed her resume and helped her find a job.

The caseworker made her feel empowered, she said. Asimba was resourceful and able to find the program, but many might not be able to on their own. The idea of the center as a “one-stop shop” is to take a holistic approach. Those seeking help do not need a referral.

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Giuliana Valencia-Banks, Baltimore County’s first immigration affairs outreach coordinator, said at the opening ceremony that the center will be “lifesaving” for many.

“I’m excited that now when I receive calls from our residents, our new American residents that have chosen Baltimore County as their home, I know where to send them to,” she said.

The center will also recruit volunteers who will be paired with asylum seekers to help them how to navigate the city. The volunteers will teach newcomers how to use the bus, for example, how the mailing system works and help them practice English.

“We’re sort of taking the load off other organizations that are doing similar work,” Meadowcroft said. “So we’re sort of adding to the labor pool there.”

The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service looked at existing organizations in the city, such as Esperanza Center, and what services they offered to see where there were gaps, said Saba Berhane, the organization’s program director. Most refugees arrive to this country unsure on where they can go for services.

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“We have created a system where our interaction with our clients start with what we call quality of life scale, where we actually sit with our clients and work with them to identify what their needs are, and work alongside them,” Berhane said. “Identify what their strengths are and help build off of that and work on their journey towards their self-identified goals and work with them towards self sufficiency.”

As the city’s population continues to dwindle, attracting more immigrants to the area is fundamental, said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the organization. The city has sought to attract and retain immigrants as a way to boost its population since 2013, when then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake established the New Americans Task Force.

“We need more Baltimoreans and immigrants can and should be an integral part of that,” O’Mara Vignarajah said. Especially when there is a labor shortage nationwide, with more than 200,000 unfilled job openings in the state, she added.

The services the center is hoping to provide are helpful and needed, said Maureen Sweeney, the director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. But she highlighted the importance of more legal representation. There are currently 28,300 immigration cases pending in Baltimore and a total of 52,641 cases in the state, according to immigration court data.

“That’s what makes a difference,” she said. Asylum seekers with legal representation are more likely to successfully argue their case in court than those without an attorney.

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Valeria Gomez, head of the University of Baltimore’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, said these centers are useful because they look holistically at what one immigrant or family needs and how to best integrate them into the community.

“I know that the clients from the University of Baltimore clinic will largely benefit from having a place where we can check in with them to see what kind of services we can provide,” Gomez said.

clara.longo@thebaltimorebanner.com

Clara Longo de Freitas is a neighborhood reporter covering East Baltimore communities. Before joining the Banner, she interned at The Baltimore Sun as an emerging news and community reporter. She also has design and illustration experience with several news organizations, including The Hill and NPR. 

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