Howard foreign-born success stories honored

Jill Bussey acknowledges she might be biased, but she thinks this year's five award winners for the Foreign-born Information and Network -- a nonprofit that supports local immigrants – are a particularly exceptional group.

"They are really inspiring human beings," said Bussey, president of FIRN's Board of Directors, about those honored at a ceremony at the Sheraton in Columbia's Town Center on June 4.

FIRN honored four foreign-born residents and one native. The four recipients of the American Success Awards are: Jean-Robert "Bob" Anantua, of North Laurel; Peter Cheng, of Ellicott City; and Raj and Ranjana Desai, of Columbia.

The recipient of the Pat Hatch Award, which is named in honor of FIRN's founder and given to a community member – foreign-born or native – who makes a difference in the lives of the foreign-born, is Ellicott City resident Rebecca Price, director of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Howard Community College.

Bussey said the annual event is an opportunity for the nonprofit – which offers support services to foreign-born residents – is an important part of spreading the mission and value of the agency.

"We hope to inspire other immigrants who are still in survival mode and show them that there are people out there who are making it and giving back," she said.

Hector Garcia, executive director of FIRN, said this is the 12th year the 33-year-old organization has done the awards, and that winners are selected by a committee from a pool of nominations made by community members.

Bussey said she is constantly amazed by the community's response.

"Every year we put out this call for nominations, and there is never a void," she said. "There is always a wonderful and robust response to our nominations."

The first to receive an ASA award was Anantua, a Haitian native who moved to Howard County in 2004 after emigrating to New York City. Anantua was honored for his work in Howard County and Haiti. In 2008, Anantua founded the Build Haiti Foundation, a nonprofit to support building infrastructure in Haiti.

Anantua also promotes Healthy Howard, a nonprofit that encourages residents to make healthy diet choices; volunteers as a mentor with the Howard County International Youth Council; and represents Haitian immigrants in Howard County's Ethnic Community Roundtable.

"Getting involved on a local level means a whole lot," Anantua said. "Everyone has to do their best to better the community that they live in."

Next to be honored was Peter Cheng, an internist with a Columbia practice who offers free services locally and abroad. Cheng, who is from China, joined a team of medical and dental professionals on a trip to a village in Honduras to provide free medical care. Cheng was also honored for his work with Grace Community Church in Fulton, which has a high percentage of foreign-born members, Garcia said.

Bussey said Cheng, during his acceptance speech, said he "felt a void in his heart" before volunteering.

"I found that to be super inspiring," Bussey said.

Raj and Ranjana Desai, a married couple who emigrated from India, were recognized for a lifetime of service to the community. The Desais, who met in 1968 and moved to Columbia shortly thereafter, have volunteered through the Rotary Club, the Florence Bain Center and FIRN. Raj, who is a prosthodontist, served on the organization's board of directors shortly after its inception 30 years ago.

Bussey said the Desais have perpetuated a culture of giving back during heir 40-plus years in the community.

Garcia added: "They're incredible."

The final award was given to Price, who has devoted her life's work to furthering the education and assimilation of immigrants in the county, Garcia said.

"She's been with us almost since the beginning," Garcia said.

Price began working at the college as an adjunct teacher in 1987 and took over as director of the ESL program in 1994. Back then, Price recalls, the position was part-time, and the offerings were much less robust.

Now, the college offers approximately 250 classes per year and serves approximately 2,000 students from more than 100 countries.

"It's grown quite a lot in the last 20 years," Price said.

Price said a key to the program's success is the practice of interviewing each student to determine what needs of the foreign-born population aren't being met.

"You have so many different backgrounds, if you don't figure out what they need you will never be able to meet their goals," she said.

Garcia said the importance of language skills can not be overstated.

"The biggest barriers are the language barrier and work. One goes with the other; you cant get a job if you don't know the language," Garcia said.

Price said she was flattered to be given an award named after Hatch, who she considers a role model.

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