Refugees plant roots in Pittsburgh

Jewish Family & Children's Service helps new arrivals acclimate to the area


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It was 1983 when a decades-long civil war broke out in Sudan and displaced Benedict Killang.

He was unable to reach his family members and unaware of their whereabouts for almost two decades. In 1996, he arrived in Nigeria, where he lived in a refugee camp and went to college. After completing his degree, he saw few working opportunities, so he applied for refugee status in the United States and, in 2002, was given a one-way ticket to America.

His destination? Pittsburgh.

Mr. Killang didn't know anyone here, but thanks to the Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh, he did have a few resources: an apartment, paid for the first few months; job placement assistance; a connection to the local Sudanese community.

He landed a job at a sewing and embroidery company. At his next workplace, he even made supervisor. He completed an MBA at Point Park University, working nights and squeezing in sleep when he could.

Now, Mr. Killang is giving back. He works as a refugee employment specialist at Jewish Family & Children's Service of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization in Squirrel Hill that, among its many programs, helps refugees find work and settle into the community.

Between Congressional votes on immigration legislation and President Barack Obama's recent order allowing certain undocumented immigrants to seek deferred action from deportations, the issue of immigration of any sort remains at the forefront of political debate.

Organizations like Jewish Family & Children's Services keep appraised of the issues as part of their efforts to prepare their clients to acclimate to a new society and contribute to it. While their work begins with a humanitarian impulse, the staff believe it also has an important impact on the region's economy.

Refugees, a subset of immigrants, are designated by the United Nations as having a reasonable fear of persecution in their home country due to factors such as race, political opinions and religion. The Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control screen approved refugees for health and criminal backgrounds while they are still abroad, and they are assigned to a new city, often based on whether they have relatives already living there. The federal government is largely responsible for funding resettlements.

For Jewish Family & Children's Service employees, the beginning of their work with refugees is a fast and furious effort to get the newcomers rooted here.

Staff members pick up refugees at the airport and take them to their new apartments. Next, the employees help new arrivals with basic necessities, such as acquiring a Social Security card and learning the bus system.

During the refugees' first month here, the organization offers workshops and counseling through its career development center, teaching skills from resume formatting to interviewing skills. Then, the search for employment revs up.

The first jobs are often in hospitality, laundry, resident care or housekeeping, at companies like the Schenley Gardens Assisted Living Facility, Omni Hotel or CleanCare linens service.

"They have to take a first job, get their feet wet, get the experience," said Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee services.

After a few months, refugees will be paying their own rent and the organization can help them find jobs better suited to their skills. The organization resettles approximately 500 people per year. It claims a 75 percent job placement rate and 86 percent job retention rate.

Overall, the U.S. Department of State admitted about 56,000 refugees in fiscal year 2011, well under its ceiling of 80,000, according to its website. Pennsylvania settled about 3,000 of those refugees, placing it fourth after Texas, California and New York, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

The refugees, along with other immigrants, contribute to Pittsburgh's economy by revitalizing vacant neighborhoods and apartments, by consuming products and services, by increasing the tax base and by staving off depopulation, according to Jewish Family & Children's Service staff.

"Diversity brings a richness to everyday, but also to the ability of businesses to conduct [business] within those populations," said Sheila Vélez-Martínez, consulting supervisor.

The organization is sensitive to anti-immigrant sentiment, but believes that such attitudes are largely due to misconceptions.

For instance, the staff members cite research showing immigrants tend to be entrepreneurs in higher numbers than native-born people. Refugees have started four Nepalese groceries in Carrick, Brentwood and Whitehall since they started arriving in 2008.

"One of the cases against [immigration] is, 'Well, they're taking jobs from other people,' but actually there's a lot of immigrants that are starting businesses" and creating jobs, said Aryeh Sherman, president and CEO of Jewish Family & Children's Service.

The region's overall immigrant population is among the most highly educated and skilled in the country. Over 76 percent of Pittsburgh's immigrants from 2000-2009 had college degrees, according to a Brookings Institution report from June 2011. The entire immigrant population grew by 13 percent during that period.

Jewish Family & Children's Service has been supporting refugees and immigrants since 1937.

It received $4.41 million in revenue and support in the 2010 fiscal year, slightly down from $4.8 million in fiscal year 2009. The organization is funded via a variety of sources, but in 2010 most of its revenue came from client service fees (34 percent), government (28 percent) and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh (13 percent). Despite its name, it is a non-sectarian organization, though during its early years, it helped many persecuted Jews resettle from Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Now, the vast majority of refugees that the organization helps are ethnic Nepalese who were expelled from Bhutan.

Overall, most of Pittsburgh's second-migration refugees -- people who elected to come here after initial placements elsewhere -- are originally from Bhutan, too. Pittsburgh is attractive to that population because of its jobs, safety and affordability. The hills here even remind them of Bhutan.

Ms. Aizenman estimated there are about 3,000 Bhutanese in the area, while other refugees hail from Iraq, Myanmar and Africa.

After settling into their new apartments, finding jobs and paying taxes, Pittsburgh may start to feel a little less foreign.

Mr. Killang visited what is now called South Sudan in May, seeing his family for the first time in almost three decades. While that trip was a treat, he didn't regret having to come back.

"Pittsburgh really is my home," Mr. Killang said.

businessnews - lifestyle

Elizabeth Bloom: ebloom@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.


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