Anifa Sanza fled the Congo with two children and now lives in Ashburton.
The sun is hours away from rising, but Shoaib Munir’s day has begun. He gives himself four hours to get ready and make his way from northeast Baltimore to the Amazon fulfillment center in Sparrows Point, where his shift begins at 7 a.m. The first bus might be running late, he might miss his transfer downtown to the second one, or another traffic hiccup along the way could delay him.
But if his commute is one of fits and starts, once at Amazon, the pace is nonstop. He is one of hundreds of workers who sort, pick, scan, package and otherwise process some 1 million items that pass through the cavernous warehouse daily en route to consumers who have grown accustomed to receiving their orders quickly, even within the same day.
It can be overwhelming for the newly arrived refugee. The 30-year-old Munir fled his native Pakistan to escape problems stemming from being Catholic in an Islamic country, spending five years in a Sri Lankan refugee camp before making his way to the United States. After years of deprivation, he spends his days surrounded by a dizzying array of merchandise, destined for doorsteps other than his own rented room on Belair Road.
“These thousands of things everyone is scanning there,” Munir said, “my heart wants to have some of these items, like a TV.”
But any such thoughts are necessarily fleeting as he races to scan barcode after barcode as quickly and accurately as possible. He fears falling short of his quota for the day, which could dash or at least delay his dream of building a new life in the U.S.
“I don’t want to be left jobless,” he said in his native Urdu as a translator interpreted.
In a sense, Munir is treading a path well worn by millions of immigrants before him who took arduous, often low-paying jobs available to a newcomers with limited language skills but hopes of moving up a long established ladder: from bus to car, renter to homeowner, alien to citizen.
Immigrants have made their way to Baltimore for decades, starting in the 19th century when Locust Point served as one of nation’s largest ports of entry after Ellis Island. About 1.5 million foreigners arrived in Baltimore from 1830 to 1914, when World War I brought about more restrictive immigration laws. Some would leave for other parts of the country, but many stayed to work at the docks, canneries, garment factories and steel mills of the growing, industrializing city.
Today’s immigrants arrive in a vastly different time and place, a transformation perhaps most visible at Sparrows Point, where long-idled steel mills and shipyards have been replaced by warehouses and fulfillment centers that service the e-commerce boom.
“The lack of workers in some cases is impacting businesses’ ability to produce products. And as a result, growth is not as strong as it could be."
R. Andrew Bauer, regional executive at the Baltimore branch of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank
With their constant need for more and more workers, the cavernous facilities have proved attractive first or second jobs for new immigrants. More than half the workers who pack goods at warehouses in Maryland are foreign-born, according to estimates by the state Department of Labor.
Immigrants constitute about 17 percent of the U.S. workforce. But they are overrepresented in occupations and industries on both the lower- and higher-skilled ends of the jobs spectrum: construction, housekeeping, agriculture, food service, software engineering, information technology, financial services and health care.
One in 4 construction workers is an immigrant, for example, as are 29 percent of doctors.
But President Donald Trump has slashed the number of foreigners entering the country, saying lax policies were letting terrorists and criminals in. While much of the focus has been on keeping undocumented immigrants from crossing the southern border, his administration has curtailed entry through legal and humanitarian avenues as well.
In fiscal 2018, about 22,500 refugees were admitted — the fewest since 1980, when Congress created the current process for resettling those fleeing war, persecution or disaster. The Trump administration, after considering a plan to cut all refugee admissions, is capping them this year at 18,000, down 78 percent from 2016.
The number of immigrants gaining the legal permanent residency commonly known as green cards is down by 7 percent during that period. The administration wants to reject the applications of those who have used public benefits or are likely to do so in the future, a plan Maryland and other states are challenging in court.
The cutbacks have an impact in Maryland, where 15 percent of residents are foreign-born, the ninth highest of the states.
“The lack of workers in some cases is impacting businesses’ ability to produce products," said R. Andrew Bauer, regional executive at the Baltimore branch of the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank. “And as a result, growth is not as strong as it could be."
In addition to manufacturers, he cited hotels, homebuilders and those that employ tradesmen who require vocational training, such as welders. On the Eastern Shore, crab picking operations rely on foreign-born workers. At the other end of the spectrum, many highly skilled jobs such as doctors are increasingly done by immigrants, and high-tech startup companies are often founded by immigrants.
Ned Atwater, who has long hired refugees to make the bread, soups and sweets sold at his Atwater cafes in the Baltimore area, said the federal cutbacks have made it difficult to fill open positions. He used to contact a resettlement agency, the International Rescue Committee, when he needed staff, and it would refer three or four people for each opening.
“In the past six to eight months," he said, “we’d get one or two people and have at times found nobody available.”
In Baltimore, recent mayors have welcomed immigrants, in part to help boost a declining population. The number of foreign-born residents has been rising steadily, as has their share of the city’s population — currently about 8 percent.
Without immigrants, the city would have shrunk even more, with consequences for everything from funding formulas to the region’s economic growth, experts say.
Trump’s cutbacks on immigration come at a time when the United Nations says more people than ever before have fled their home, whether it’s Syrians, Afghans, Libyans and Yemeni escaping war; ethnic minorities like the Rohingya of Myanmar and Uighurs of China driven out by persecution; or the untold numbers chased by natural disasters and climate change-induced flooding and drought.
Those given the opportunity to start over, even in a strange land, could not be more grateful, said Ruben Chandrasekar, who heads the Baltimore office of the rescue committee, which works with the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees.
"To earn that first paycheck, to buy your kids a new pair of shoes — it’s a big deal,” Chandrasekar said. “They’ve been denied things we take for granted.”
‘A good welcome’
One night more than 10 years ago, they came for Anifa Sanza’s husband.
She doesn’t know who they were, the 35-year-old Sanza said through an interpreter, or why they killed him. But then as now, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been beset by war and ethnic violence, stemming in part from the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
Despite its civil war officially ending in 2003, violence in the country continues, particularly in the eastern part where Sanza lived. Millions have died, many from disease or famine, or fled their homes as various armed factions recruited and drugged children to serve as soldiers and used rape and mutilation to terrorize local populations. Almost 13,000 Congolese refugees were resettled in the U.S. last fiscal year, the most from any country and representing about 43 percent of all refugees.
Widowed and pregnant, Sanza stayed with her parents for a while until confronted with a horrifying prospect.
“My husband’s brother," she said, “wanted to inherit me."
She and her son, Moses, now 10, left the country and were accepted into a refugee camp in Malawi.
“In the camp, they give you a place to bring your stretcher,” she said of the open-air sleeping area. “We used leaves for the roof, we used grass. Malawi is a rainy place, so we put up plastic sometimes.”
The years passed and blurred as she waited for approval for resettlement, a process that requires international agencies to verify claims for why a refugee fears returning to their home country. Sanza said she entered into a relationship with a man she met in the camp and had a daughter, Bahati, now 5. But his resettlement process was further along than hers, and when he was accepted by Finland, he was not allowed to take Sanza and the children, she said.
Finally, in September 2018, after multiple interviews and vaccinations and delays, she arrived in Baltimore.
Although, she added with a smile, “I had underestimated the cold in this place. I was actually very cold.”
The refugee committee helped find the family find an apartment in West Baltimore’s Ashburton neighborhood, where she has put up colorful drapes and Post-it notes on the walls and cabinets to help her learn English words like “kitchen” and “light switch."
On a recent evening, Sanza made a traditional dish with dagaa, a tiny silver fish, the way her bibi — Swahili for grandmother — taught her.
She soaked several handfuls of the whole dried fish in water, then drained and dropped them into hot oil. Next into the pot went tomatoes, shallots, garlic and seasonings, simmering into a stew and wafting a familiar scent through her still unfamiliar surroundings.
“It reminds me of back home,” Sanza said.
Unlike many refugees, she was able to find work in her own trade. A tailor in her home country, she has a job sewing for Blind Industries of Maryland, which among other products makes uniforms for the military and law enforcement agencies. While her employer’s first mission is to serve the visually impaired, it also hires other groups that might have difficulties finding work, such as those with criminal backgrounds or new immigrants such as Sanza.
Every morning during the week, Sanza drops her kids off with a fellow parent who takes them to Arlington Elementary School. Then she takes the Metro and a bus to the factory in Halethorpe.
She laughs about it now, but remembers panicking once over where to transfer between the two in downtown Baltimore, and not knowing enough English to ask anyone. She called the pastor of a church she and other Congolese immigrants attend, and he told her to give the phone to whoever was sitting next to her on the bus. That passenger walked her to the subway station, and Sanza was so grateful she gave the Samaritan a $5 bill she had in her pocket.
Despite bafflement over why so much is taken out of her paycheck, and worries that she might have to find a second job to make ends meet, Sanza said she likes the work “very, very much."
She is grateful that she “was given a good welcome” in America. Her children seem to feel a similar gratitude — Moses said he wants to be a firefighter so he can help other people; Bahati said she wants to be a doctor, also to help others.
The fish ready, she and the kids pause to say grace before digging in. To accompany the dagaa, Sanza has made ugali, a polenta-like mixture of cornmeal and water that she mixed in a pot continuously until it could be scooped into doughy balls. They pulled off hunks of it, and used them to scoop up the stew.
At work, Sanza is part of the finishing team. Sitting at sewing machines, they put the final touches on uniforms ― black physical training jackets for Army soldiers on this particular day.
While one co-worker speaks French and can communicate a bit with her, Sanza said she is learning a little English and is not entirely isolated at work — and in fact, recently recruited a fellow Congolese immigrant to work at Blind Industries.
“I communicate with what little I know,” she said. “I use my hands, we understand each other."
Sanza said she doesn’t miss her strife-torn country.
“I’m safe here,” she said.
Not enough workers
Construction projects are delayed and cost millions of dollars more than budgeted. Warehouses compete for employees and offer employee perks like free transportation.
Workplace experts say the cause is the same — a lack of workers, exacerbated by reductions in immigration.
“Contractors can’t find skilled tradespeople, period,” said Bob Ayudkovic, president of the Maryland Center for Construction Education & Innovation, a nonprofit that supports the industry.
“The immigrant labor pool is becoming one of the dominant sectors in the construction trades," he said. “And a reduction in the potential labor pool is certainly impacting the amount and volume contractors can take on.”
Ayudkovic said the industry has long relied on immigrants, citing Europeans who a century ago brought their skills in the building trades with them to the U.S., working as laborers and moving up to become crew chiefs, managers and business owners.
“This is how the country has grown,” he said.
Immigrants will only become more important to the overall U.S. workforce and economy in the future, as baby boomers retire and both birth rates and unemployment remain at record lows, recruiters say.
“We will need immigrants with the labor market as tight as it is now,” said Bruce England, executive director of the Susquehanna Workforce Network. “All industries are looking at every pool in the workforce they can get."
The network has been helping businesses in Harford and Cecil counties with recruitment for over three decades. Recently most of the job openings have been at warehouses and distribution centers, with the two counties home to the majority of those that have opened in Maryland in recent years.
In the case of warehouses, getting enough staff for their cavernous facilities, and keeping them, has proved challenging.
For Munir, working at Amazon is both difficult but necessary. He was already working in a hotel when he took a second job at the warehouse in Sparrows Point. But that left him so little free time, he decided to give up the hotel job, which paid $10 an hour compared with Amazon’s $15.
“It’s not so easy,” Munir said. “I’m scanning items; you have to be very fast.”
Even 30-minute work breaks can involve rushing. It takes 10 minutes to walk between his work station and the break area, leaving just 10 minutes of actual free time, Munir said.
“You just have to eat as quick as you can,” he said.
Sometimes, he’s so exhausted he’ll skip dinner and just go straight to bed when he gets home. Between working and commuting, there’s little time for much else in his life. Munir said he knows other Pakistanis in Baltimore but they have little time to socialize.
“The hard part is I work 10 hours there. It takes four hours to get [to and from] the job.
“When I get home from work, I’m alone. I don’t have my family.”
If he keeps working, he can save up for a car. If he spends less time commuting, he can take English classes.
“I want to be self-sufficient,” Munir said. “I want to have my own house.”
Winning the lottery
When Mohan Shahi arrived from Nepal in 2015, he took one of the most Baltimore jobs around.
“I started at Royal Farms as a cashier," Shahi said, “and making chicken.”
Although he is a college graduate who worked as an air traffic controller in Kathmandu, the now 44-year-old Shahi still felt as if he had won the lottery.
Because he had: He had received one of the coveted visas awarded annually in the so-called diversity lottery, available to people from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S. The odds of getting one are exceedingly slim — in fiscal 2018, for example, almost 15 million people applied for just 50,000 visas.
It is among the immigration programs that have come under attack by Trump, who incorrectly has said foreign countries try to get rid of their worst people by entering them in the lottery. (Individuals apply directly to the U.S. State Department lottery, not through their home countries’ governments.)
Shahi said he immigrated for “the better education system, especially for my kids, and the better life.” He had friends in Baltimore who recommended the city as “a good place” for his family — wife Sabitri Chand, 40, daughter Swumya, now 11, and son Swornim, now 8. They settled into an apartment in the Medfield neighborhood in North Baltimore.
Soon he’ll have been here for five years — and eligible to apply for citizenship.
After two years at Royal Farms, he took a higher-paying job at the Amazon fulfillment center on Broening Highway. He recently completed a drone piloting course offered at work and now hopes to get licensed to fly the devices, which Amazon plans to use to deliver packages.
He’s also an Uber driver. With his various jobs and his wife’s work, first at Dunkin’ Donuts and now as a wheelchair attendant at the airport, the family was able to buy a house in the suburbs. They moved in last month.
“Welcome Friends,” beckons a plaque on the front door of the townhouse in Elkridge. Shahi could not be prouder, showing off a table he made in the basement, the deck off the living room and some of his reminders of home — a rug his father made, posters of temples and Mount Everest that he will hang on the wall.
With the holiday rush, he’s been working a lot of overtime at Amazon.
“It’s really a hard job, a very fast environment. Life is not very easy,” Shahi said. “But that’s why I came here. USA — it’s the land of opportunity.”
His friend Gautam Dahal, also from Nepal, has a slogan as well: “USA means ‘you start again.’”
The Evening Sun Newsletter
Get your evening news in your e-mail inbox. Get all the top news and sports from the baltimoresun.com.
A journalist by trade, Dahal now owns a Papa John’s pizza franchise in Carroll County. He and Shahi are part of a Nepalese community that the U.S. census estimates at 7,700 statewide.
Living here has had both triumphs and tragedies. Last year, one of their countrymen, Harry Bhandari, an educator, was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates as a Democrat representing Baltimore County’s District 8.
But also last year, a Nepalese woman who lived in Towson, Brindra Giri, was one of three co-workers killed by a temporary employee at the Rite Aid distribution center near Aberdeen. All three victims were immigrants.
Shahi said that while he is “not much interested in politics,” he’s aware of Trump’s efforts to curtail immigration — and how the president cites national security as the reason.
“Security is the most important thing,” Shahi said. “But immigrants help the country. The immigrant people are working here. They contribute to the growth of everything. ...