Refugees in Pittsburgh celebrate their heritage

Observance marks blend of cultures following relocation

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Since 2010, five shops have opened in previously vacant storefronts along a 2-mile stretch of Brownsville Road in Carrick. Four of these are markets. One is a clothing store. All are owned by resettled refugees from Bhutan.

The speed with which these stores appeared has raised a few eyebrows among longtime residents of the district. Some assume their new neighbors receive help from the government. Others say the refugees do not pay taxes, said Natalia Rudiak, a city councilwoman for the district.

Such accusations, Ms. Rudiak said, are false.

"They certainly do pay taxes," she said with a laugh.

But these grievances demonstrate the unease that comes with adjusting to a large influx of people, causing a sudden demographic shift. The most common foreign language in Pittsburgh Public Schools' English as a Second Language classes is Nepali, spoken by ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan, Ms. Rudiak said.

This shift was evident Saturday at the Community College of Allegheny County on the North Side during the second celebration of World Refugee Day in Pittsburgh.

While throngs of Pittsburghers braved the afternoon heat in cowboy hats for the Kenny Chesney concert at Heinz Field, dancers from the African nation Burundi, clad in multicolored outfits of purple and green, swayed to the beats of the Ngoma drum, part of traditional Bantu music from central Africa.

"This city is changing," said Elie Kihonia, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who played guitar before a small crowd gathered in the CCAC auditorium. "If you don't like it, you'd better move to another city. ... We're becoming more multicultural, more diverse."

The crowd greeted him with resounding applause.

The global event started in 2001 and is celebrated annually to spread awareness of refugees throughout the world.

Pittsburgh has long been a popular resettlement destination. But local organizations are beginning to dedicate more time and resources to helping refugees.

Pauline Duncan, a representative from the Pittsburgh chapter of the Red Cross, detailed new initiatives at the Pittsburgh chapter, such as a program to connect families separated by conflicts and an international humanitarian law course.

Members from the Pittsburgh Connect Hilltop Computer Center, a branch of the YMCA that teaches computer skills to kids in Allentown, Arlington, Beltzhoover, Carrick, St. Clair and Mount Oliver, promoted their programs, many of which teach refugees. "The refugee population vastly outnumbers any other group other than Caucasians and African-Americans," said the center's program director, Nicolas Jaramillo.

According to the latest statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately 15.4 million refugees in the world. Fewer than 1 percent of all refugees are resettled outside of the country to which they fled, according to the State Department.

From the small number who are approved for resettlement, the United States accepts more than half of these refugees. Then, nine national nongovernmental organizations work to resettle them. Of those nine, 350 affiliated offices around the country assist refugees during their first few months in the country, relying on a small amount of money from the U.S. government.

But soon, refugees are on their own.

"When refugees come to the United States, they actually have to pay back their airfare to the U.S. government," Ms. Rudiak said. "They're expected to be self-sustaining in a period of six or seven months."

Refugees often prefer Pittsburgh to other U.S. cities, said Kheir Mugwaneza, director of Community Assistance and Resettlement for the Northern Area Multi-Service Center, one of the four Pittsburgh NGOs that do resettlement. The others include Jewish Family & Children's Services, Catholic Charities and Acculturation for Justice, Access & Peace Outreach, each of which has national affiliates in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Mugwaneza said NAMS resettles about 200 people each year. The city's decent job market and affordable housing help refugees become self-sustaining more quickly than elsewhere, he said. And many choose Pittsburgh as a second resettlement location, moving here from different U.S. cities once they hear about the opportunities, he said.

From hip-hop lyrics rapped in Swahili to native Bhutanese dances, Saturday's celebration shed light on a few of Pittsburgh's cultural offerings.

But a look around the room revealed a dearth of native Pittsburghers, which as Mr. Mugwaneza pointed out, hampered a main goal of the event: connecting Pittsburghers to the refugee community. He's hopeful the event's scope will expand next year.

Haji Muya, 21, a Somali refugee who grew up in Kenya in Kakuma, the world's largest refugee camp, performed a few original raps for the second year at the event. He's president of the music label LKF Entertainment, which stands for "Lil Kiziguwaz Family." While he supports the diversity celebrated at the event, he agrees with Mr. Mugwaneza.

"If we're promoting cultures, we need to have American culture next year," he said. "It would be more diverse if the Americans came, too."


Jacob Axelrad: or 412-263-1634. On Twitter: @jakeaxelrad.


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