A 4-year-old girl arrives at her foster parents’ home, having left the only home she’s ever known to find safety in the United States, but instead, finds unimaginable cruelty.

“That was at the tail end of family separation,” recalled her foster mother. “She literally was pulled from her grandmother’s arms and cried for the first two weeks — ‘Abuela, Abuela, Abuela’ — just cried for her grandmother over and over again.”

The girl’s grandmother had tied a small piece of red ribbon around her ankle, assuring her that it would help them find each other. After a short stay with her foster family, the pair was reunited.

“If the tables were turned and I was in that situation, that the best option for me [would be] to send my child alone into a foreign country — that’s just mind-boggling,” the foster mother said.

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But that’s the reality for thousands of children each year who make the long and dangerous journey to the U.S. southern border to seek safety. They do so without a parent or guardian at their side as they attempt to flee cartel violence, political unrest, persecution and, increasingly, climate devastation.

These children arrive on our doorstep seeking refuge, security and a chance to rebuild their young lives — but not without challenges, such as limited support, language and cultural barriers and unfamiliarity with U.S laws designed to protect children.

Fortunately, people like this foster mother and her husband, in cities like Baltimore, apply our community’s resilience and dedication to positioning our newest neighbors to thrive. In fact, in the past three government fiscal years, 4,123 unaccompanied children have begun pursuing their American Dream in Baltimore and Baltimore County.

The good news is that most children — approximately 85% — are reuniting with family members already living in the U.S. By law, however, they first must be transferred to a care provider within the Department of Health and Human Services’ shelter network until they can be safely reunited with their vetted sponsor, an imperative precaution amid troubling reports of migrant child labor exploitation.

The organization I lead, the Baltimore-based Global Refuge, is one such provider caring for unaccompanied children as we work to reunify them with their parents or another appropriate guardian. Our Transitional Foster Care program nurtures particularly vulnerable children — typically those 5 to 12 — ensuring that they receive holistic support ranging from on-site education services to legal assistance to health care, as well as one-on-one mental health counseling at our Baltimore Welcome Center. Our goal is to train and support foster parents to care for children in stable family settings until they can be safely united with their sponsor, a process that typically ranges from 10 to 30 days.

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Sadly, not every child finds a temporary foster parent. Our family-centered care model stands in stark contrast to the large-influx facilities operated by for-profit entities with little to no child-welfare experience. The practices of these facilities, relied upon by both the Biden and Trump administrations, often lead to detrimental effects on an already vulnerable population. For example, according to an internal government investigation, one 10,000-bed facility saw children go as long as two months without seeing a case manager, causing many to experience distress, anxiety and in some cases panic attacks.

Global Refuge’s foster program instead recognizes that these children are not just in our custody, but in our care. But with nearly 120,000 entering the shelter system last fiscal year, a significant gap exists between the number of available foster families and the growing number of unaccompanied migrant children, including a troubling shortage in Baltimore that has jeopardized the future of the program. This gap represents thousands of young lives on hold — lives that our city can help redirect toward a brighter future.

Fostering a child is an act of profound impact. It goes beyond providing a roof and meals; it’s about offering emotional support, cultural understanding and a sense of belonging. For migrant children, a foster family can be the first chapter in a story of hope, resilience and integration into a new community.

The benefits of fostering extend both ways. Families who welcome these children into their homes often speak of the enrichment it brings to their lives, broadening their perspectives and deepening their understanding of an issue that is far too often politicized.

And while the challenges posed by an unprecedented global displacement crisis may seem overwhelming and beyond our control as individuals, becoming a foster parent can make a monumental difference — one child at a time. In this historic moment of immense humanitarian need, we ask Baltimoreans to consider this profound act of compassion.

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As one local foster parent shared, “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a very enriching thing. No matter how long you do it, it’s going to stick with you for a long, long time.”

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is president & CEO of Baltimore-based Global Refuge, one of the nation’s largest refugee resettlement nonprofits. She previously served as policy director to former first lady Michelle Obama.