Aya Attal and her family arrived in Pittsburgh as a refugee family last year. Having fled their war-torn home town of Damascus, Syria, Aya’s family found safety in Pittsburgh, but the 17-year-old has been frustrated with the state of refugee affairs here. Her high school intervened only minimally when another student referred to her as “the Bomb Threat,” and she fears that no bridges are being built between arriving immigrants and students raised in Pittsburgh.
Since Aya’s arrival in Pittsburgh, the resettlement agencies and city government have made a point of communicating their desire to assist resettlement efforts. The mayor has told the public he wants to help Syrian refugees relocating to Pittsburgh to “get back on their feet,” but Aya’s family and others are struggling to do so. Lack of jobs, discrimination and misinformation about Muslim culture all seem to be challenges beyond their control.
“If Pittsburgh helps us, we will help them. Give us the opportunity; we will do great things,” Aya said.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto pledged in 2015 to accept as many as 500 Syrian refugees. Two years later, only about half of this number have arrived in Allegheny County, and many struggle financially.
The youth of the community have questions and concerns about just how welcoming the city has truly been. Progress seems slow to the refugee community, but the city government is offering assurances and concrete plans to improve their quality of life.
Aya is just one student in a group of eight Syrian refugee youth who have gathered to share their stories, fears and frustrations on a Sunday afternoon meetup at The Cheesecake Factory in South Side Works. This youth group has met regularly since their arrivals to Pittsburgh, under the mentorship of Ansars of Pittsburgh, a group of volunteers helping refugee families acclimate to their new homes.
Arriving as teenagers and young adults, their experience is much different from their parents. Their parents have degrees that are deemed useless here; they remain forever in a game of catch-up, trying to balance menial factory or hospitality work with English classes. The younger members of the refugee families, however, are placed into American high schools. They learn English through ESL programming and have firm goals of post-high school education. From aerospace engineering to law school and business management, each of these eight students plans to pursue higher education. These young people are the first wave of modern Syrians who will come of age in this city and have a hand at shaping its future.
Aya is the most vocal of the group, with a clear voice for leadership and vision. She is passionate about her love for Pittsburgh. The city is where her family first felt safe after a life-altering upheaval, and it is where they have chosen to put down roots. Aya plans to pursue higher education here and, as much as she loves her new home, she has concerns for how the refugee population is handled by the city government. Aya hears a lot of promises, but does not see enough follow-through from city officials.
Alexis Vargas of the mayor’s office is head of the Welcoming Pittsburgh campaign. Her role is to take feedback from residents like Aya, and put it into action. This spring, Vargas led a series of community brainstorming events to support immigrants. Since the program concluded in May 2017, the city has begun to address the concerns of the refugee community, issue by issue. For example, a series of videos and community “know your rights” sessions are being devised as a direct result of feedback. Multilingual videos and meetings will help immigrants and refugees know their rights under the law, understand city law enforcement and know how to act during a traffic stop or other police encounter. Many immigrants are coming from countries where the police forces are extremely corrupt and untrustworthy, and this program seeks to instill trust.
Hind, 18, of Carnegie, has had similar problems to Aya in school. Hind finds the classwork easy — she notes that schooling in the Middle East is much more rigorous than American schooling. While she’s had to supplement her education with classes in Chinese and Japanese at the University of Pittsburgh to challenge herself, she says the social interactions are the hardest part. “One boy, he kept coming in my space. He was aggressive physically. He kept trying to kiss me. The teacher, she just warned him.” She felt her concerns about the boy were not validated by those in leadership. Due to her experiences in the last year, Hind has many ideas to make the residents more accepting. She wants more programs for lifelong city residents, not only for refugees. Right now, Hind feels the responsibility of integrating is placed solely on the immigrant without any expectations for native Pittsburghers. “There is so much segregation everywhere in Pittsburgh. No one will sit next to me on the bus. If that is the open seat, people will stand...”
One local American-born teen, Peyton Klein, recognized the same issues that Hind was facing in her school. Klein founded a nonprofit to create more globally-minded and culturally sensitive students in Pittsburgh. Global Minds started at Squirrel Hill’s Taylor Allderdice High School. “If I can help you with your homework, and you can teach me about your culture and experience, everyone benefits,” Klein shares. What started as a small after-school program has grown to 50 Allderdice students, with plans to extend to 10 more schools nationally — including Aya and Hind’s school — in the near future.
Hind’s 15-year-old sister Nuha sees positive efforts made to welcome their community. “The city did try. They invited us to the City-County Building and gave tours. The mayor met us afterwards. We need more of this. Not everyone could go. Many work, and we aren’t working typical 9 to 5 jobs anymore. Long hours. Our parents are in factories and things like that now. So we need more of those events that everyone can make it to.”
Hind and Nuha’s brother, 23-year-old Fayz, did not attend American high school. In recent months, he was working 12 to 15 hours per day; he had been working in a chocolate factory during the day, a job he recently left, and he still spends his evenings delivering pizza. At the same time, Fayz is pursuing a GED diploma so he can go to college for medical management. The $9 an hour he makes goes to his parents and family, but it’s never enough. Long days mean English classes like those offered through Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council are difficult for many to attend.
Fayz draws on his family’s experience to offer suggestions on improving the resettlement process. His mother, for example, had a well-paid education job before the war. Now, because of her poor English skills, she is working in the chocolate factory. “What if,” Fayz shares, his voice rising with his passion for the topic, “we were taught English for six to eight months upon arrival? Just put us in full-time English school, take care of food and living and medical needs for that time. Don’t have us worry about anything but English. Then when we have the English, we can go get good jobs.” Jobs that support their families, jobs in the fields for which they already have degrees and years of experience.
The Pennsylvania Women Work organization, with a new grant, seeks to address employment issues locally for refugees who had skilled positions in their home country. This program, which is open to men and women, will place highly skilled refugees into positions related to their former work before displacement.Fayz, like many of the youth in the group, struggle with feeling voiceless. Even as progress is made, change feels slow to those who most need it. “We have answers. But no one wants to really listen. The city acts like I can’t think…” he said.
Feyisola Alabi, a policy advisor for the City of Pittsburgh, is aware that accessibility is a major issue for refugees like Fayz and his family. She says the city is planning to bring in an accessibility consulting firm to assess all departments. The firm will decide which documents need to be translated into the five most popular languages: Arabic, Spanish, Nepali, Chinese and Swahili. Translation services are also expected to be added to the 311 non-emergency city call center. In addition, improvements will be made for people with hearing and vision impairments.
Support systems for asylum seekers are struggling to evolve at the pace of the humanitarian need. What may feel like inaction is actually the slow process of a city learning exactly how to respond to the largest migration in history.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are 65.6 million displaced people in the world right now. Pittsburgh is one of many cities navigating exactly what programs and processes they need to meet the growing needs of refugees.
Aya summarizes the thoughts of her peers well: “We hear, ‘We will do, we will do, we will do.’ And so we wait, hope and pray. The mayor is super nice, OK? But we need action.”
Update 4/25/2019: This story has been updated to remove identifying information of some sources for their safety.