At the Baltimore Orientation Center in Highlandtown, where refugees from distant countries learn practical skills to succeed in America, one of their most valuable lessons comes from a game of musical chairs.
"This game is a little bit like looking for a job. Can you tell me how?" coordinator Sara Bedford asked after a recent game among a dozen men and women who had fled Burma, a Southeast Asian country also called Myanmar that is under de facto military rule.
"When they give you an interview time, you need to go fight," answered Nang Nu Nu Khaing, 38, who arrived in the U.S. last month and has two teenage children. "You have to motivate yourself."
Bedford put an even finer point on the comparison: In musical chairs, competitors usually head for the closest chair; if they're choosy, they lose. For your first job in the U.S., she tells them, you can't be picky.
The International Rescue Committee's five-day cultural orientation program, developed by the group's Baltimore office, is responsible for helping hundreds of new residents adapt to their new home. Lessons cover a range of topics, such as how to behave in a job interview, ride in an elevator and write a check for utilities toBaltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Most of the refugees come from Burma and Bhutan, Iraq, Eastern Europe and Africa. They're primarily drawn to Baltimore by rapidly expanding networks of family and friends resettled in and around the area.
The IRC, which has operated in Baltimore since 1999 and is currently the city's only resettlement organization, has steadily increased the number of refugees it assists in Maryland each year.
A decade ago, fewer than 200 refugees — predominantly from Africa and Eastern Europe — were helped by the organization. In its most recent fiscal year, almost 800 refugees were settled in the Baltimore area by the IRC, and more than two-thirds were from Bhutan or Burma.
In the Burmese group's game of musical chairs, filled with laughter over pop music, the final competitors were Ngun Khen, 29, and her husband, John Biak Peng, 31, who arrived in the U.S. at the end of January.
"I am so happy," said Khen, after claiming the last empty chair. She grinned as two interpreters — one to translate Burmese, a second to translate a regional language called Hakha Chin — relayed the winner's message to the rest of the competitors.
It took the IRC more than a year to develop a week's worth of lessons, like this one, that would stick in refugees' minds.
Before starting the program in June, IRC caseworkers, located in its Baltimore Resettlement Center across the street from the classroom building, had to provide orientations to refugees individually.
Training efficiency is key for the organization, which has limited space and personnel but a growing demand for services. The ground-floor waiting room of the resettlement center is frequently crowded with refugees seeking assistance.
Over the five days of orientation, refugees are introduced to the resources available from the IRC and Lutheran Social Services, which offers employment placement assistance and has counselors at the resettlement center.
"It provides refugees with power and with information," said Bedford.
In one portion of an employment class, groups of refugees decide what they would do in hypothetical work scenarios, such as choosing between a job that pays under the table and one that deducts payroll taxes.
"Refugees are often excited to pay taxes and make use of the benefits from those taxes, like schools and roads," Bedford said.
Two days deal with housing issues, safety and budgeting. The students practice dialing 911 and are taught the basics of depositing money in a bank, an institution unfamiliar to most of the refugees.
The last day of class covers health insurance and visiting the doctor. The session culminates in a tour of Baltimore Medical System's Highlandtown facility, a community health center that has partnered with the IRC to welcome refugees and offers interpreters who speak a half-dozen languages.
The tour includes a primer on riding an elevator.