BALTIMORE – Khada Upreti was 19 when the Bhutan government imprisoned him and other members of a Nepali-speaking ethnic minority group. Three months later he was released and fled to Nepal, but wound up in a refugee camp with thousands of other Bhutanese.
Sixteen years later, a U.S. government program brought Upreti, his wife, and three children to the Baltimore Resettlement Center to start a new life in a country that was initially unfamiliar and bewildering.
“I was facing a lot of adjustment problems. Communication, shopping, everything was new for me,” he said. “So this office helped me start my English classes, job search and applying for food stamps.”
The Baltimore Resettlement Center in the city’s Highlandtown neighborhood has assisted thousands of refugees over the years, and recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
In 2008 alone, more than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers arrived in Maryland, most of them from Burma, Iraq and Bhutan, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Epidemology and Disease Control Program.
Asylees differ from refugees in that they are usually already in the U.S., but cannot return to their home country for political, religious, or other reasons, said Jessica Li, an advocacy and outreach coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, a refugee aid organization affiliated with the resettlement center.
The bulk of new arrivals in 2008 moved into Montgomery County, closely followed by Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. This year, the center will resettle about 600 refugees and 200 asylees, Executive Director Robert Warwick said.
Warwick is also in charge of the Suburban Washington Resettlement Center in Silver Spring, the only other such institution in Maryland.
When the Baltimore Resettlement Center was first established in 1999, it provided a much-needed, one-stop location for refugees entering the U.S.
“Like in most of the states in the U.S., the refugee resettlement program was kind of a diverse group of voluntary agencies,” Warwick said. “So you might have one agency actually greeting refugees at the airport, finding them housing, getting them set up like that, then another agency doing employment services, and yet another agency for medical screening.”
Frank Bien, then-director of the Maryland Office for New Americans, was aware of the problem and, in 1999, obtained federal funding for his idea of putting the services refugees needed under one roof.
“So we set it up 10 years ago, and it’s really, really blossomed,” Bien said.
When the time came to decide on an appropriate location for the center, Bien immediately thought of Baltimore’s Highlandtown.
“I always thought it’d be symbolic to be here in Highlandtown because a hundred years ago, this was the epicenter of immigration and all the ethnicities came here, brought their own aspirations and built their own churches,” he said. “There was a history here of successful resettlement.”
Khada Upreti is now a Nepali interpreter for the Baltimore Medical System, a job he said he could not have found without the interpreter training he received through the center.
In his spare time, Upreti volunteers at the center, helping at events and providing homework help to refugee children at Baltimore schools.