Howard's new face, flavor


Visitors to Running Brook Elementary School are welcomed by signs in English and Spanish.

A Korean supermarket and department store has replaced a Super Freshgrocery at the crossroads of U.S. 29 and Route 40.

At Rafet's hair salon in The Mall in Columbia, 22 employees chat in languages and accents from eight countries.

Howard County's demographic portrait no longer is black-and-white. Drawn by the promise of good jobs and good schools, foreign immigrants are moving to Howard County in increasing numbers, changing the way the county looks, acts and sounds.

Latin rhythms vibrate through apartment complexes in Columbia's Wilde Lake village. The county library stocks books and tapes in 25 languages, among them Urdu and Hungarian.

The Police Department is recruiting bilingual officers, and the list of translators used by county courts includes those who speak Russian, Farsi, Portuguese, Arabic, Spanish, Korean and Urdu.

"Here you have [Columbia founder] James Rouse's vision of an integrated community," said Kinza Schuyler, an immigration counselor with Foreign-born Information and Referral Network (FIRN), which assists immigrants in the county.

In 1980, 5,300 foreign-born residents lived in Howard County. Ten years later, that had more than doubled to 11,300. Between 1990 and 1999, that number grew again as more than 5,200 immigrants settled in the county, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Though a few refugees have settled in Howard County with the help of local churches, many of the county's foreign-born residents have lived in the United States for some time and are leaving cities for the suburbs.

"It's for the same reasons that anyone else would want to go there," said Ralston Deffenbaugh,president of Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services in Baltimore. "It's a pleasant community, the schools are good and there are jobs."

The pattern has been repeated across Maryland, with more than 130,000 immigrants coming to live in the state in the 1990s. In the metro region, Baltimore County had the largest increase, with about 12,500.

The precise number of foreign-born residents in Howard won't be known until the latest census is tallied, but signs of the growing immigrant presence are everywhere.

In the middle of a weekday afternoon, business is brisk at the Lotte Mart in Ellicott City as mostly Korean shoppers select fresh fish and hoist 50-pound bags of rice into their grocery carts.

The store is the fourth in a chain that has outlets in Rockville, Fairfax and Silver Spring, said store manager D.J. Kim.

In the Bethany Shopping Center on Route 40, signs in Korean mix with those in English, advertising tutorial services, tae kwon doclasses and real estate services.

Grace Lee said she and her husband opened their real estate office in the shopping center to serve their largely Korean clientele who wanted to buy houses in the area.

"Howard County has good schools, and in Korea, education is very important," said Lee, who immigrated in 1974 and lives in Baltimore County.

Howard County schools enroll students of more than 80 nationalities who speak more than 50 languages. The number of children enrolled in English classes for non-native speakers has increased from 95 students in 1986 to more than 1,000 students today.

The school system translates report cards, permission slips and rules of conduct into three languages - Korean, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish - and this year for the first time the school board approved spending for additional translations.

Two years ago, the school system started hiring bilingual counselors to work with immigrant families. Today, the system has six community liaison workers - three who speak Spanish and three who speak Korean. The schools also keep a bank of more than 60 translators who can speak eight languages.

"We talk about education that is multicultural," said Min Kim, who coordinates the community liaison program. "A very basic step of getting parents involved is getting interpreters for the parents."

While many immigrant families value education, Kim said, "They are so unfamiliar with our school system [that] even though they have the heart and desire, they don't know how to help their children succeed."

Running Brook Elementary School is trying to bridge that gap between immigrant parents and the school system. The school has translated lunch menus and welcome signs into Spanish, and Principal Marion Miller has tried to learn some Spanish.

Twice a week, Spanish-speaking parents attend classes at Running Brook, learning English so they can help their children.

"When I take my child to the doctor, I can't understand what he says. I need to learn English," said one parent, speaking through a translator.

The Howard County library is striving to serve an immigrant population, increasing its inventory of foreign-language books and tapes, and translating library user information into Spanish.

For several years, the library has sponsored literacy programs for non-English-speaking adults and offered story times for children in Korean, Japanese and Spanish.

"Some of the foreign-language periodicals are the most popular periodicals we have," said Cindy Jones, coordinator of materials management.

The Police Department recently began a Spanish certification program for officers.

Pfc. Gabriel Arias said that when he joined the force seven years ago, only a handful of officers spoke Spanish. A native of Costa Rica, he was often called in to interpret at traffic stops and arrests.

Immigrants, especially those who are in the country illegally, often become victims of crime, he said. Without proper documents, they cannot open bank accounts and so they often carry large amounts of cash, which makes them tempting targets for robbers. They also are easily cheated by apartment managers and employers who know illegal immigrants are reluctant to report crimes.

Arias said much of his time is spent cultivating the trust of these residents. "They are usually very happy to see me and have me come up and say something in Spanish," said Arias.

But needs and aspirations change as time passes and immigrants grow more comfortable in America. Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church, for example, was founded in Baltimore County in 1979 by recent immigrants who could not understand the English services of the local churches.

Today, the church is in Ellicott City and has 1,500 members. Since many of the children of those first members can't understand Korean, the church also offers services in English, said the Rev. Timothy Park.

Recently, the congregation discussed whether it should try harder to recruit non-Korean members.

"We don't want to be segregated," Park said.

Yet that could mean the loss of what makes the church special.

"We have to keep our identity, and yet we want to be part of this country," Park said.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad