For ILS, Vignarajah to advocate for safety of asylum seekers, refugees


Kaitlyn Finchler
Staff writer

The American Dream is sought after by many, but achieved by few. In an act of service, born of personal experience, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah works to support refugees and asylum seekers in Baltimore.

Vignarajah — president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service — will speak at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “Realizing Our One World: Strengthening Interconnection.”

“(Vignarajah) leads a large nonprofit organization … and she has particular expertise on climate migration,” said Melissa Spas, vice president of religion at Chautauqua Institution. “Her work in welcoming people around the world to the United States is significant in itself.”

Her parents, Elyathamby and Anandasothy, left behind a Sri Lanka on the brink of a civil war in the 1980s when she was an infant and her brother was 3 years old.

“I realized that we were lucky for the few that got out, that had a chance to start a new life,” Vignarajah told The Baltimore Sun. “That meant we were blessed, but needed to earn it. So, I think that’s just motivated me to pursue a career in public service.”

Both she and her brother, Thiruvendran, have served in political roles. He was the former deputy attorney general of Maryland, and she was in the White House as policy director for Michelle Obama, leading the signature Let Girls Learn initiative. 

Since 2019, her work at LIRS has made her an action-oriented advocate who seeks humane solutions to the U.S. immigration system.

“I am confident that (Vignarajah) will lend a valuable perspective on global migration, and the gifts and strengths of refugees and asylum seekers around the world,” Spas said. 

“I also hope that Chautauquans will be encouraged and inspired to act in support of immigrants and refugees, globally and here at home.”

LIRS opened a welcome center June 13 in Otterbein, a neighborhood in Baltimore, for refugees and asylum seekers. The center provides social services, legal assistance and workforce development, among other resources.

A report by the George W. Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative ranked the city as second-best in the nation for immigrants. The 2020 U.S. Census recorded 292,100 immigrants in Baltimore, accounting for 10% of the city’s total population.

“I hope that (with) these new waves of immigrants that we can make it easier, we can make it possible for them to realize the American dream,” she told the Sun. “Because I count my blessings every day, knowing that for my family, we feel like we achieved ours.”

The theme, Spas said is “an angle of vision” of the Chautauqua Lecture Series theme, “The Global South: Expanding the Scope of Geopolitical Understanding.”

“It is our intention to have speakers who are able to address the topic of global interconnectedness with a perspective of knowledge and priority that is located outside of the Global North,” Spas said.


The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.