Adote and Tele Akwei had few possessions and no credit when they arrived in Baltimore a decade ago after fleeing their native West Africa.
Now they are among Baltimore's newest homeowners — and one of the first families to take part in a new effort to help refugees buy homes here.
An international relief group, using money from Baltimore's Abell Foundation and others, plans to help 20 refugee families already living in Maryland buy homes in the city and nearby suburbs. The nonprofit International Rescue Committee has helped thousands of refugees settle in Maryland since 1999. The group decided to help some of them become homeowners after hearing of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal of attracting 10,000 families to Baltimore.
"Refugees living in the city work very hard," said Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the rescue committee in Baltimore. "They pay rent. They certainly buy homes, as Adote and Tele have. They start small businesses and they stimulate the local economy.
"Refugees also enrich our neighborhoods with their cultural values by establishing strong family and community relationships, pushing their kids to excel in our schools and showing respect for and taking care of the elderly."
The homeownership program provides $7,500 per family using money from the federal government, the Abell Foundation and Islamic Relief USA. The rescue committee hopes to offer the program to new groups of refugees, immigrants and perhaps other Americans in the future.
The Akweis faced death threats in their native Togo before coming to the United States. Adote Akwei was a lead labor organizer for a the now-defunct airline, Air Afrique, and a human rights activist who challenged the nation's dictatorship. He followed his wife to the U.S. in 2005 and was granted political asylum about a year later. The couple has since been able to help their five children come to this country.
After finding work, becoming citizens and saving $500 toward a down payment, they used the fledgling homeownership program to buy a white bungalow in Northeast Baltimore's Frankford neighborhood with four bedrooms and a backyard big enough for their grandchildren to play.
"I want to promise that I will give all I can to help make America what it used to be, and what it wants to be," said Akwei, 58. "I am here to contribute with my family, wholeheartedly, to do whatever we can do to make Baltimore a more healthy society."
About 7,000 refugees from throughout the world settled in Maryland from 2008 to 2013, according to the latest national figures. The numbers put Maryland 21st nationally and, per capita, 15th in the country.
More arrivals are expected as groups like the rescue committee prepare to serve Syrian refugees fleeing deadly civil war. This month, President Barack Obama ordered his administration to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.
Rawlings-Blake said immigrants are a cornerstone of her goal to grow the city.
"I've heard of your resilience, your determination and strength as your family moved through this journey from Togo to the United States and now here, the city of Baltimore," she said Tuesday to the Akweis, standing in their front yard for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to highlight the homeownership program.
"Baltimore continues to be a welcoming home for new Americans. … We're better when we are a welcoming city. We are better when we truly believe our diversity is our strength."
Rawlings-Blake created a Cabinet-level position in 2014 to focus on immigrant and multi-cultural affairs. The office works to change the culture within city agencies to accommodate new arrivals. It has also helped establish programs to provide micro-loans to immigrant entrepreneurs and canvass neighborhoods to help the estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants living in Baltimore obtain citizenship.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said the homeownership program builds on efforts to boost the number of immigrants who will call Baltimore home. He called the program "a very effective use of money."
"Baltimore needs people, and immigrants are overwhelmingly hardworking and law-abiding," Embry said. "One thing is clear: Immigrants attract immigrants. The hope is for this to build on itself."
Kevin Meadowcroft, a spokesman for the rescue committee, said the group's work is especially important considering the strife facing Syria. The committee, based locally in Highlandtown, has helped resettle 26 Syrian refugees this year.
The nonprofit serves about 800 refugees a year in Maryland. Since the office opened in 1999, it has settled 6,000 refugees in Baltimore, including large numbers in recent years from Burma, Iraq, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The international organization works in more than 40 countries and 25 U.S. cities.
Most of the refugees who come to Baltimore end up here because of a family connection, Meadowcroft said.
For the Akweis, closing on the family's $155,500 house was "the realization of the American dream, which is a moving target," Adote Akwei said. "But today I grabbed it, and I want to lead some others to do the same."