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Baltimore’s immigrant families lack a safety net amid the pandemic. This group brings food, supplies and support.

Staff members and volunteers at Asylee Women Enterprise collect food for asylum seekers and other immigrants in the city. From left: Arnobia Bernal, Lynne Cummings, Katie Kriss and Lesli Ordoñez.
Staff members and volunteers at Asylee Women Enterprise collect food for asylum seekers and other immigrants in the city. From left: Arnobia Bernal, Lynne Cummings, Katie Kriss and Lesli Ordoñez. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Many immigrants seeking safety and stability in the United States struggle with policy shifts and tenuous work situations in the best of times. A pandemic that shuts down large parts of the economy and prompts the president to tighten borders makes the situation even harder.

Asylee Women Enterprise, an organization working with asylum seekers and other immigrants in Northeast Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood, adapted to the times by partnering with other local groups to deliver groceries, diapers and household supplies to immigrant families in need.

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“Because of people losing work, many families are needing a lot of help,” the organization’s food and education coordinator, Lesli Ordoñez, said in an email interview. “The most important thing is to try to help anyone who needs our help.”

Per its name, Asylee Women Enterprise primarily serves women and families seeking asylum after escaping violence or persecution in their countries of origin. Clients come from countries as varied as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador and Saudi Arabia.

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Staff members and volunteers at Asylee Women Enterprise are collecting food for asylum seekers and other immigrants in the city. Here, Arnobia Bernal places food bags in a car for delivery. July 16, 2020
Staff members and volunteers at Asylee Women Enterprise are collecting food for asylum seekers and other immigrants in the city. Here, Arnobia Bernal places food bags in a car for delivery. July 16, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The organization offers emergency and transitional housing for these asylum seekers, as well as food pantry services and a day program — including help with housing and health care, job readiness, community workshops and more — for immigrants of all types. That day program has since gone virtual, which has come with its own challenges. For instance, it’s hard to replicate the in-person atmosphere of some group activities over Zoom.

Its holistic services, including the aforementioned new no-contact delivery program, provide support to communities affected by both COVID-19 and economic downturn. Many immigrant and asylum-seeking clients aren’t eligible for public assistance.

“These kind of safety nets that have been created for the rest of us — unemployment insurance, the stimulus ... asylum seekers are not eligible for many of those means-tested benefits,” executive director Tiffany Nelms said.

So far, by its own reports, the organization has delivered food and supplies to 748 families since the pandemic. Asylee Women Enterprise also takes in nearly 10,000 pounds of food a month for distribution to immigrants in need.

It does this work, plus the same wraparound services as before, with only three full-time and three part-time employees. About 15 volunteers make the deliveries possible.

“We are prioritizing bringing supplies to families that have tested positive for COVID,” program director Katie Kriss noted. Nelms added that the communities they serve, from Latinx immigrants to African asylum seekers, are infected with the novel coronavirus at disproportionately high rates.

At the core of each Asylee Women Enterprise service lies a strong sense of community across cultures. This sentiment pervades even despite the challenges of making the day program virtual.

“We have had a lot of really sweet community moments where people have seen each other on Zoom for the first time in a few months, and it’s been really special to see, people’s faces light up,” said Kriss. “I think that really shows the uniqueness of our community, and how our relationships that are formed here are so special.”

Learn more about Asylee Women Enterprise’s work at asyleewomen.org.

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We want to hear about the essential workers and everyday people who are keeping the Baltimore area safe, fed and cared for. Submit your heroes at baltimoresun.com/heroes.

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