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Volunteers spruce up housing for asylum seekers for MLK day of service

Volunteers clean out the basement of a house that is newly renovated for asylum seekers. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)

More volunteers than expected turned up Monday and made quick work of cleaning out a dusty cellar at Gilead House, housing in Pikesville for immigrant asylum-seekers.

About 16 people cleared cobwebs, swept away dirt and helped haul away pieces of wood, old cans of paint, broken equipment and other debris, contributing to a Martin Luther King Jr. day-of-service activity that put the finishing touch on the newly renovated house.

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Built in 1865, the former rectory of St. Mark’s-on-the-Hill Church opened in September to its first asylum-seeking residents and is run by the Pikesville church and the Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance, or ERICA. Three men — from Cameroon, Congo and Ethiopia — currently live there, while they request asylum because of persecution in their countries.

The basement cleaning was one of about a dozen Baltimore-area activities that a handful of churches, under the umbrella “the Churches of Charles,” sponsored Monday in honor of the civil rights leader. Other activities included serving breakfast to homeless men in Charles Village, organizing books at Abbottston Elementary School and making “Gallons of Love” bags, containing hand warmers, water and food to give people on the streets in city neighborhoods.

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Anne Perry said she decided to volunteer at Gilead House after hearing about the project at one of the churches in the alliance, Second Presbyterian Church, which she attends.

“I’m retired, and I thought, I should do something,” said Perry, a Roland Park resident. “America is open to all people of all nationalities, and I think we need to welcome people. But I also do believe that there should be laws about when they come and how we follow through with them. … If they’re in the asylum program, they need support on their way to proper citizenship.”

During their time at Gilead Monday, Perry and the other volunteers heard from Betty Symington, executive director of ERICA, about the unique and typically stressful situations of asylum seekers.

Sylvain Kalombo said his family has fared better than others who left the Republic of Congo 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 on Saturday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Guilford.

The immigrants come to the U.S. legally, having requested asylum at the border or while visiting on a visa. But, unlike those with refugee status, they do not receive any government services during a process that can take at least three years. They are not permitted to work right away, leaving many homeless or shuttling from one place to another.

Gilead House, which has six bedrooms and can house up to four men and a resident adviser, aims to give its residents a safe, stable place to stay for 12 to 18 months. That time, organizers said, should allow residents to get approval to work, study English, look for jobs and housing, and begin to rebuild their independence.

The Gilead House program also aims to connect people who tend to be isolated to their new community and become acclimated to U.S. customs.

“The more connections our residents make in the community, the better,” Symington told the volunteers. “In the end, what gets you your job and leg up is your community.”

Raymond, an asylum seeker from Cameroon who lives at Gilead House, came to the U.S.nearly two years ago. The Baltimore Sun agreed not to identify him by his last name because of his concerns about his safety and that of his family at home.

”I fled violence from my country,” Raymond said.

He traveled from Nigeria to Spain to Mexico before entering California. After being detained, part of the asylum-seeking process, he came to Baltimore, where he has a half-sister. He moved to Gilead House several months ago.

“It’s going to allow me to get assistance with so many things,” he said.

He has obtained a work certificate and hopes to eventually become licensed to work as a lab technician, his job in his home country. A hearing on his case is scheduled for September.

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St. Mark’s and ERICA reached an agreement about two years ago to use Gilead House for the next 15 years to house men who are asylum seekers, said Adrianne Cusick, a St. Mark’s member and the head of a committee that oversees the housing.

The agreement allowed them to apply for funding for much-needed renovations. The $135,000 project received a grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, state funding and donations from area churches and other donors. It also gets support from the Chizuk Amuno Congregation synagogue in Pikesville. Much of the furniture was donated.

“Housing is definitely what the community feels is the most important need to address,” Symington said. “When you have a stable and safe place to live, you can begin to heal and focus and have energy to be your own advocate to do what you need to do to get asylum.”

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