OHLA moving to new office


At the Annapolis intersection of West Street and Madison Place, the whir of drills, the pounding of jackhammers and the roar of bulldozers alert passers-by that West Street's renaissance is taking shape. In the middle of the cacophony, staffers with the Organization of Hispanic/Latin Americans of Anne Arundel County have been quietly building a foundation of their own - one that they hope will cement their position as the premier provider of immigrant services for the county's burgeoning Hispanic population.

For the past three years, the organization known as OHLA, which helps newly arrived Hispanics integrate into American life, had operated 18 hours a week from a small trailer at Allen Apartments in Parole.

But at a ceremony today, the organization will unveil its new two-story office, along with new goals.

"We've accomplished a lot of things, but there's a lot more that needs to be done," said OHLA President Rick Ferrell, 66, who is Cuban-American. "We didn't have the space before."

With two floors of space, OHLA is seeking to regularly sponsor countywide Hispanic Town Meetings, expand its ed-ucation programs, train more bilingual conflict-resolution counselors to mediate disputes arising from cultural differences and fill the holes in existing county services for Spanish-speakers.

The new goals require a reorganization. OHLA will now be structured into five departments: referral and assistance, education, legal, health and housing, clothing and food.

The organization wants to better deliver its services, which range from helping Hispanics with immigration paperwork and employment disputes to providing English classes, life-skills training and better access to social services.

Honoring the promise

One thing that won't change is the organization's threefold brochure that reads, "OHLA Inc. ... honoring the promise." In case anyone has forgotten that promise, a picture shows the Statue of Liberty, her eyes focused, with the words: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

"We want to create a bridge between government agencies and Hispanic immigrants," said Ferrell, who was wearing a Statue of Liberty pin on his lapel during a recent tour of OHLA's new office.

According to the latest U.S. census data, there have been a lot of bridges to build. Hispanics make up 6.4 percent of the Annapolis population, up from 483 in 1990 to 2,301 last year.

In Anne Arundel County, the Hispanic population increased by 89 percent during the past decade, from 6,815 to 12,902, the figures show.

Community groups say those figures are understated.

They estimate that 5,000 to 7,000 Hispanics live in Annapolis. An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Hispanics live in the county, the groups say, encompassing a range of identities and heritages including newcomers from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and almost every country in South and Central America.

Cultural differences

OHLA was formed in 1998 to address this influx. With the group now in a new home, it plans to convert its trailer at Allen Apartments to a "satellite operation" providing outreach to families in Parole and beyond, said Darline Thomas, OHLA's coordinator for educational programs.

"A lot of families need help with life skills," Thomas said.

"Others need help reading a piece of mail they can't understand," she said.

Ferrell recalled cultural differences he struggled with as a 15-year-old in 1950 when his family move to New York from Cuba. When Ferrell's 12-year-old brother saw the varnished wood floor of their Brooklyn apartment, he said, "Now, we're really poor."

Ferrell explained: "In Cuba, the only people who have wood floors are very, very poor. It's like having a dirt floor. Everybody in the city has tile. So that's a little window into the cultural differences."

Recently, OHLA has been busy helping Annapolis' Salvadoran community get Temporary Protection Status.

Help for Salvadorans

President Bush, responding to two earthquakes within a month that killed more than 1,000 people and caused devastating damage in El Salvador, pledged the status in March for about 150,000 Salvadorans who are in the United States illegally.

The measure allows undocumented Salvadorans who were in the United States before Feb. 13, when the second quake struck, to remain and work legally for 18 months.

"The work permit and Social Security number that comes with TPS is like gold," said referral and assistance coordinator Francisco Encina. OHLA has helped more than 300 Salvadorans apply for the status, he said.

Any given day finds Encina in his office speaking in Spanish to immigrants as others line up outside his door waiting their turn.

He said that many also come to him seeking help for relatives who have been detained by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Houston or El Paso as they made their journey to relatives in Annapolis. He arranges bail and reschedules court dates for them.

Ramiro Villafuerte, an OHLA volunteer, said he is glad to see the organization establish more permanent roots in the state capital.

"This is the first institution for Hispanic help," Villafuerte said. "Every Hispanic knows this institution. And hopefully, more people will."

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