Krishanti O’Mara Vignarajah, a former adviser to Michelle Obama who unsuccessfully ran for governor in Maryland last year, will be the next president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS).

The resettlement agency, founded in 1939, is one of the largest of its kind in the United States. Based in Baltimore, it partners with Lutheran resettlement organizations across the nation, including in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud.

Vignarajah, whose parents fled civil war in Sri Lanka and arrived in the United States when she was 9 months old, said she is honored to lead an organization dedicated to supporting immigrants and refugees.

“At a time when too many refugees and asylum-seekers are unsure whether they will be welcome in America, I am committed to ensuring that all immigrants seeking a better life in America are afforded the same opportunities as my families received to pursue their dreams,” she said in a statement.

Vignarajah is the first non-Lutheran in the nonprofit’s 80 year history. The Lutheran immigration service conducted a nationwide search and chose her because it believes she has both a passion for the work and “the business acumen to drive the organization in a positive direction,” its board chairman said.

“Krish is exactly the kind of once-in-a-generation leader LIRS needs right now,” said LIRS board chairman Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

“In the wake of unprecedented challenges to U.S. refugee resettlement and immigration policy, the LIRS mission — to protect, embrace, and empower those we serve — is more crucial now than ever ,” he said.

Maureen Warren, who oversees immigrant and refugee services at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, said she has not met Vignarajah, but “she has a very impressive résumé.”

“Her background as a refugee herself could also be very valuable in her work and leadership on refugee issues,” said Warren, chief family services officer at LSS. “We’re looking forward to working with her.”

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services was founded in 1939 by U.S. Lutheran churches that wanted to help people displaced during World War II. The agency reports it has helped more than 500,000 people rebuild lives in the United States since then.

The United States accepted about 30,000 refugees from October 2018 to October 2019, according to Lutheran Social Service. There are nine national voluntary organizations that coordinate their resettlement, and LIRS is one of them.

Vignarajah, who graduated from Baltimore County public schools, served as policy director for Michelle Obama, and led the Obamas’ “Let Girls Learn” initiative. Before that, she worked as senior adviser at the State Department under Secretaries Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. At the State Department, she coordinated programs including those concerning refugees and migration, engagement with religious communities, the legal dimensions of U.S. foreign policy, and regional issues relating to Africa and the Middle East.

 

Star Tribune staff writer Jean Hopfensperger contributed to this report.