Eastern and Conkling
Burhan Kadir, a Kurdish former refugee, stands outside of the matress store on Eastern Avenue he has owned since 2007. (Photo: Kevin Meadowcroft/IRC)
Kevin Meadowcroft is IRC in Baltimore's Community Integration and External Relations Manager. He has been working in refugee and immigrant services in Baltimore City since 2001.
Although Baltimore in the recent past experienced a more than half-century pause in welcoming immigrants, it was once a destination for newcomers to our shores. Partly through the efforts of the International Rescue Committee and its partners, it is becoming one again. My ancestors were among those who settled in this city from overseas during the late 19th and early 20th century. There is continuity between the dynamism and resourcefulness they and their countrymen brought to the city then, and the way similar immigrant energy is helping to reshape the city now.
The Baltimore Resettlement Center, where the local offices of IRC are situated, anchors the corner of Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street in Highlandtown. Starting from the corner outside of our offices in any direction gives a glimpse of Baltimore immigration, past and present. On any given weekday, you will see newly resettled refugees – tall, sturdy young men from Darfur, Iraqi women with covered heads and child in tow – rushing back and forth to make appointments or waiting patiently at the bus stop across the street. Heading north along Conkling, you will soon encounter on your left, the barebones Hoehn’s, a bakery started by German immigrants in 1927. Another block and down to the right is Dipasquale’s, established 15 years before Hoehn’s by Italian immigrants and, like the bakery, still in the family. Dispasquale’s, a deli and market, is regularly named best Italian food in the Baltimore-Washington area. A block further is Our Lady of Pompeii, where my aunt attended grade school when the student body consisted of almost all Italian Americans. Its parishioners now are almost exclusively Latino. The Hebrew Friendship Cemetery a few more blocks on contains graves going back as far back as the 1870s. Quite a few of the graves are of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms in Czarist Russia. We would call them refugees today.
Back to Eastern Avenue, which has become one of the main business corridors for immigrant businesses, particularly those of Latinos. To the east of our Center are a line of such businesses: Peruvian chicken outlets, Mexican restaurants, a Bangladeshi-owned kebab place, and several Dominican hair salons. A little further to the West is Greektown, where fifty-year-old Greek restaurants and a café where mustachioed older men lounge and drink coffee compete against upcoming Latino establishments. To the west of the center, a family of Kurdish former refugees owns a mattress discounter; further past is the stark golden dome of a Ukrainian Catholic Church. The road ultimately leads to Little Italy, where my grandfather grew up, and a restaurant named after his father, an immigrant from Abruzzi, stood for several decades.
In my position at IRC, one of the programs I am helping to develop focuses on the economic integration of refugees in Baltimore City and the surrounding counties. Thanks to the efforts of our staff, local employers, and the refugees themselves, our clients find employment soon after they arrive. But, in the long term, to thrive in our city, refugees need opportunities to become homeowners, to buy a stake here. Moreover, refugees tend to be very entrepreneurial people as many have built small businesses for survival in refugee camps before coming here. The cofounder of Google was a refugee resettled in Maryland. The US nail salon business did not exist until Vietnamese refugees invented it. Our clients need a path to become small businesswomen, whether it is doing some sewing on the side or opening a traditional brick-and-mortar shop. With a little help, the industriousness and creativity of refugees will go a long way in not only improving their lives, but will also add to the mosaic of neighborhoods like Highlandtown – just as earlier generations of immigrants have.