When Krish O’Mara Vignarajah and her family arrived in the United States as refugees fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka, the community welcomed them with open arms.
Her dad found a job as a schoolteacher in Baltimore, where the family, including the then 9-month-old Vignarajah, settled.
The superintendent of schools helped her family find an apartment, she said. The vice principal helped them start a bank account. Churches and temples literally put clothes on their backs — warm coats and other gear to help them adjust to the city’s bitter winters.
“It was because this community — we call it now the ‘circle of welcome’ — embraced us not just as strangers, but as neighbors, as friends, as family, that I had the chance to really live the American story,” she said.
Now Vignarajah hopes to extend that same welcome to others as president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Vignarajah, who was policy director for former First Lady Michelle Obama, is the second refugee and the first non-Lutheran to lead the Baltimore-based organization in its 80-year history.
In a statement on the LIRS website, Bishop Michael Rinehart, chair of the organization’s board, called the new president and CEO “exactly the kind of once-in-a-generation leader LIRS needs right now.”
He also said her recent appointment comes at a time when “the LIRS mission — to protect, embrace, and empower those we serve — is more crucial now than ever.”
“The selection of Krish is an embodiment of the Lutheran commitment to be a church for the sake of the world,” he said. “Today, we have the opportunity to extend and embrace the gift and energy of a leader who came to this country as one of the most vulnerable.”
Before she worked for the former first lady, Vignarajah was a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. There she worked with religious communities and also worked on programs that dealt with refugees and migration.
Among the proudest moments of her career, she said, was when former President Obama raised the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. to 110,000 in fiscal year 2017. President Trump has since cut that cap to 30,000 for fiscal year 2019, a move that has caused agencies like LIRS to cut staff and shift programs.
In 2017, she ran for the Democratic nomination for governor of Maryland. Outside of politics, she has experience in business at management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and in law, practicing at Jenner & Block, clerking for Chief Judge Michael Boudin on the U.S. Court of Appeals and teaching international law at Georgetown University as an adjunct professor.
She plans to bring that experience from government, business and law to her current role, she said.
She also plans to draw on her faith.
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Source: Religion News Services