Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, former refugee and Obama White House adviser, to head LIRS

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.

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah poses for a photograph with her daughter Alana at her home in Gaithersburg, Md., on March 27, 2018, during her Maryland gubernatorial campaign. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

CHICAGO (RNS) — 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.

RELATED: Two years after Trump’s travel ban, faith-based refugee groups struggle

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 adviser 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,ooo 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.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah. Photo courtesy of LIRS

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.

Vignarajah is Hindu. Her husband, Collin O’Mara, is Catholic. They are raising their daughter, who is one and a half, in both faiths.

Being in an interfaith family has taught her “there is so much more that we share than those differences that divide us,” she said.

“I hope that through my appointment, I can highlight what joins us all.”

The new president and CEO is looking forward to engaging congregations in the work the LIRS does, she said. In addition to churches raising funds for the organization through offerings, she hopes individuals also will get involved, spreading the word about its work on social media or volunteering with hands-on programs.

She wants to reach out to both champions and critics of LIRS’ work with refugees and immigrants. She knows there are Lutherans and others who are nervous about immigration and who are unsure about who refugees are or why they are coming to the U.S.

Just days into the job, Vignarajah had her first opportunity to do that. She was in Chicago last week for meetings at the headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America when Trump declared a national emergency at the border with Mexico.

Within hours, she had released a written statement criticizing the move as unconstitutional and “both unnecessary and ineffective.”

“The administration cannot afford to play games when lives are at stake,” she wrote.

She hopes that work will put an “empathetic” face on refugees and raise the profile of the work LIRS does to support them.

“What I want to do is take the message to people who need to hear it,” she said.

“I want us to harness the grassroots enthusiasm that exists, knowing that embracing the stranger is as Lutheran a value as it is American. That’s where I hope that I can be a unique messenger, because I know the personal benefit and the life-changing work that LIRS does.”

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