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Group helps refugees, asylum seekers adjust in Baltimore

Sylvain Kalombo left a job teaching at a university, along with a congregation of nearly 800 he led, and had to sell many of his family's belongings to move to the U.S. from the Republic of Congo.

Though Kalombo had visited the U.S. several times before and had enough savings to support his family until he found work, he said they have struggled to navigate the bureaucracy to attain asylum status. Eventually, he hopes to get his green card.

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"It's very difficult," he said.

But Kalombo, 46, said they have fared better than others who left his country because they have had help from the Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance, which aids refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants in the region. The organization held an open house for volunteers and clients Saturday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Guilford.

"We are lucky," Kalombo said.

About 70,000 people will emigrate to the United States this year, and another 100,000 are expected by 2017. About 43 percent of 6,700 refugees who have arrived in Maryland since 2010 have settled Baltimore.

The Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance helps connect its 50-some clients with other service providers in the area, such as counseling, legal aid, and groups that provide funds to help pay utilities or get a bus pass.

"We know they've been through difficult circumstances," said Betty Symington, director of the organization.

Baltimore organizations including the International Rescue Committee help resettle refugees, but Symington said additional resources are badly needed.

"Many people don't get applications completed, or the resources they need," she said.

Symington said she still works with clients she met when she started working with the organization five years ago. She recalled one recent instance in which a woman from the war-torn Central African Republic was in danger of missing a social services hearing because her car broke down. Symington arranged for the hearing to be conducted over the phone.

"You need an advocate," Symington said.

Symington said her clients face the biggest obstacles finding jobs and housing.

When Darius Ndoli, 34, landed in Baltimore three years ago after fleeing violence in Rwanda. He had been staying with a friend in Virginia who was reassigned overseas with the U.S. Navy. When he arrived in Baltimore, he said the alliance helped him find rent-free housing with a member of the congregation who lives in Owings Mills.

Ndoli is waiting for his asylum application to be approved, but he recently experienced a setback. When his work visa expired, he was in the process of earning his commercial driver's license. Without his work visa, he said, his driver's license and training for the commercial license were void, and he was unable to work.

Without a place to stay, he said, he would be on the street.

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He said coming to the United States has been overwhelming.

"You know nobody, you know nothing. You don't know where to start," he said. Though he already spoke English and knew how to use a computer, he said many others are not as lucky.

Back in Rwanda, Ndoli said he had a degree in tourism management. But in the U.S., many employers want applicants with U.S. degrees and work experience.

He hopes to eventually get his green card, and earn a degree in the U.S. Though the transition has been a struggle and he remains separated from his family, he said he'd do it again.

"You remember you are safe, there is no gun on your head" here, he said.

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