She was young and afraid, eight months pregnant with her first child and in a foreign land.
"It's a perfect Christmas story," said Molly Corbett, executive director of Asylee Women Enterprise, a nonprofit based in west Towson helping people seeking asylum. Corbett, a non-profit consultant, got a call between Christmas and New Year's Eve in 2011. An Afghani woman needed a place to stay, a doctor for her impending labor and delivery and, most of all, safety.
Corbett made a call to the Benedictine Sisters who agreed to take in the woman for a few days at their Emmanuel Monastery on Joppa Road. When she went into labor – nearly a month early – Mercy Hospital took care of her and her son, and the new family returned to the Benedictines, who welcomed the baby and doted on him.
"They know hospitality," Corbett said of the sisters. "They were wonderful with her."
From that experience, a new enterprise was born. After learning there were other asylum seekers needing help, Corbett found seven other local religious communities to offer housing, medical resources or other support.
Housing was the first priority. Currently, the organization houses nine people, mostly in convents or motherhouses for religious women. "We always have a waiting list," Corbett said.
Then it became clear they had to help with the long legal process toward asylum status. In their first year, AWE helped seven people. Last year it was 76. "This year we're on track to help over 100 people," Corbett said.
"In asylum seeking many times they don't know they need to apply for asylum. They're just fleeing," Corbett said.
The process takes up to three years from application to interview to approval. "We have women who have been waiting a year and a half for their interview," she said. Corbett calls the uncertain status "limbo.
It's a really difficult process."
Corbett said most of the asylum seekers she meets are African, law-abiding and alone. They've left family, homes and jobs behind. One woman told her, "I didn't want to come. I had to come."
Every week, AWE's asylees gather in a sunlight-filled room at the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart's motherhouse on the corner of Chestnut and Joppa. On Monday and Wednesday, the focus is career oriented. Because a large portion of clients are well educated, they want help with career development and English classes for business or writing. About 10 to 15 women usually attend. Guest speakers also come regularly, according to Holly Leon-Lierman, who coordinates the Monday-Wednesday programs. The executive director of the National Women's Business Council will speak in the coming days on entrepreneurship, she said.
Sessions on Tuesday and Thursday are social. The Sisters' Co-op, a craft program, provides space and materials so participants can create items such as scarves, bags and notecards, sold at craft fairs around the region. In December, their work will be on sale at holiday events at Second Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Community of Relay, both on Dec. 7. Items are also available for purchase at their space at the motherhouse for the Mission Helpers.
The Co-op was designed to help women earn a little money while they can't get work permits. But it's more than that.
"It's more of a way of outreach for us," Corbett said. "This is the face of asylum."
"It's a place to go, a place to be with other people," she added.
Parties are common on Tuesdays and Thursdays. "I think we celebrate every holiday in the world," Corbett said. "We're always having a pot luck."
A few extras during the week, including massage, music therapy and yoga, help the body and soul, as well, Leon-Lierman added.
While Co-op participants are all women, Corbett said the organization accompanies both men and women seeking asylum and work. Both staff and volunteers accompany their clients to meetings with lawyers, to asylum interviews, even to doctors' visits, Leon-Lierman said.
AWE has five paid, and mostly part-time staff, who count on about 15 volunteers to help meet the needs of clients. "We have amazing volunteers," Corbett said. She says AWE asks a lot of them, asking them to build relationships with these newcomers.
The bonds they build appear strong. Nearly every person helped by AWE has maintained their connection, even as they move onto work and independence after gaining asylum. "It helps when they have a network to help them adjust," Corbett said.