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Immigrant families making Highlandtown boom

Dominique Maria Bonessi

Tucked into a corner off Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, there are Latino-owned restaurants, blacked-owned barbershops, and one small grocery store owned by an immigrant-Nepalese family that opened in 2013.

Highlandtown Grocery’s shelves are lined with a variety of seeds, pastries, and sweets from Nepal, Pakistan, and India. WYPR has agreed not to use his last name as the store owner, Druba, and his family are political asylees that resettled in Baltimore in 2005 with the help of the International Rescue Committee. Druba explains he opened the store because he wanted some way to provide for his family. 

“I have three kids and my wife,” said Druba. “I don’t have a good education and my wife doesn’t speak good English.”
While questions about immigration and President Trump’s travel ban have roiled the country and the federal courts, southeast Baltimore is embracing refugees and political asylum seekers. Pockets of Nepalese, Latinos, Arabs, and other immigrant groups are opening businesses and buying homes in neighborhoods that early on attracted Germans, Poles and Greeks.

“At that time in the Nepal there were a lot of problems there,” said Druba. “And at that time there were a lot of people going outside the country like that.”

Druba says they left after years of political instability during Nepal’s Civil War from 1996 to 2006. The landlocked country in the Himalayas witnessed armed conflict between Communist groups and the Nepalese monarchy, hundreds of thousands displaced persons, and tens of thousands killed or missing

Today Druba and his family consider Highlandtown home with a community of around 10,000 Nepalese and other immigrant groups to support their business.

“They always help us,” said Druba. “They say if there is any problem in the community or in the business. And if there is we will help.”

Druba explains that he receives support not only from his community, but also from the International Rescue Committee located a block away. The IRC of Baltimore works to resettle immigrant families help them buy homes, and apply for asylum or refugee status. IRC’s Executive Director, Ruben Chandreskar, says immigrants and refugees are very entrepreneurial.

“The act of immigrating volunteering and surviving a forced displacement as refugees do means that you are pretty tough and you know how to survive,” said Chandreskar in a phone interview.

According to US Census data foreign-born residents made up 4.5 percent of the city’s population in 2000. That figure had climbed to 7.6 percent by 2015, despite Baltimore’s overall declining population. Chandreskar says that the reason for Baltimore’s economic growth is due in part to these foreign-born residents.

"If you can look at the last 15 years,” said Chandreskar. “To the extent that Baltimore is growing their population and tax base, refugees have really helped the city rebuild.”

Despite calls on the federal level—and in some local jurisdictions—for tough enforcement of immigration laws, Mayor Catherine Pugh and the city council are calling Baltimore a welcoming city for those who wish to live here and start businesses.

“I’m not a politician,” said Druba, as he avoided questions about immigration issues facing Maryland and Baltimore.

He is not a politician and he came to Baltimore to build a better life for him and his family. But Chandreskar says Druba and his family’s contribution to the community not only betters them, but the entire community.

“All immigrants and refugees that are here in Baltimore city are here to contribute,” said Chandreskar. “And they’re helping to rebuild the community. And we should look at them as assets that are trying to rebuild their lives are exactly the people we should have as neighbors.”

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