Giving thanks: Newly arrived refugees share an American holiday
The Rai family, refugees from Bhutan, from left, Damber, son Ayush, daughter Ashmita and Gopi, in their apartment in Whitehall. Ashmita is displaying a picture she took of her brother with the family cell phone.
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At an early Thanksgiving celebration in Whitehall, tables lined with the standard turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes also held less traditional dishes -- goat meat, curry and a bread called roti.
Those attending the meal Thursday were recent refugees to Pittsburgh from countries where conflict exists -- places such as Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Iraq, Morocco, Turkey, Sudan and Congo. For some, it was the first time they celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States.
"All of our cultures know how to give thanks, and it's something that binds us all together," said Courtney Macurak, site director for South Hills Interfaith Ministries' Prospect Park Family Center, which has organized Thanksgiving celebrations for new refugees for the past five years.
Since 2006, nearly 1,300 refugees have come from troubled nations to live in Allegheny County. Some have moved to other American cities, while others have come here from their original resettlement site, attracted by the prospect of jobs and the low cost of living.
They arrive, for the most part, at Pittsburgh International Airport with little more than the clothes they are wearing. They must quickly learn to navigate an unfamiliar city, speak English, adjust to American practices and organizations, find work and send their children to school.
Their journey here and the acculturation process after they arrive involve layers of international groups, U.S. government agencies, a resettlement organization and social services.
For the Rai family, the resettlement process began in Nepal, brought them to Pittsburgh in April and last week landed them at a table in the basement of Whitehall Church, eating their first Thanksgiving meal. Their journey is, of course, unique, but their story is similar to that of many of the refugees who now call the Pittsburgh region home.
Life for Damber and Gopi Rai began in Bhutan, a small country in southeast Asia, nestled below China and next to Nepal.
Fleeing ethnic persecution, both left Bhutan with their families in the early 1990s when they were youngsters -- he was born in 1984 and she in 1982. Their families lived, with thousands of other Bhutanese refugees, in the Teemai Bhutanese Refugee Camp in Jhapa, Nepal, and it was in a camp school that the two met.
Shelter in the camp consisted of small bamboo huts where families slept under plastic roofs and on mud floors. The bathroom was outside, and they bathed in the rivers. The camp was mostly safe, but fights sometimes broke out between groups of young men.
The two married when they were in high school, which was against the rules, and the school expelled them. They had two children, a girl, Ashmita, born in 2005, and a boy, Ayush, born in 2009.
Once they started a family, they began to worry about the future for their children. After living in the camp for nearly two decades, they decided to leave and applied for refugee admittance to the United States, where some relatives lived.
About two years passed from the time they submitted their application in Nepal to their arrival at Pittsburgh International Airport.
About 3 million refugees have entered the United States since 1975, with nearly 75,000 arriving in 2009 alone, according to the State Department.
The department defines a refugee as a person who has fled his or her home country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. The U.N. High Commission on Refugees has said there are 10.5 million refugees in the world, including the Bhutanese living in camps in Nepal, as the Rai family did.
Fewer than 1 percent of all refugees resettle in countries other than the one they fled to, but of that 1 percent, the United States takes in more than half, which is more than all of the other resettlement countries combined.
Overseas organizations working with the United Nations conduct security and medical screenings and interview the applicants. A loan from the International Organization for Migration, which must be repaid, funds the refugee's journey.
Applicants who are approved to resettle in the United States enter the Refugee Admissions Program, a group made up of agencies within the State Department, Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services and 10 domestic nongovernmental organizations.
The nongovernmental agencies, with the help of government funding, provide the refugees with resettlement assistance and initial services.
The heads of the organizations meet in Washington, D.C., and decide which agencies will settle which immigrants. Two of the agencies -- the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society -- have affiliated offices in Pittsburgh.
Two ideals -- a passage from the Torah that says "Justice, Justice you shall pursue" and the Hebrew phrase "tikkun olam," which means "repairing the world" -- drive the refugee resettlement work that Jewish Family & Children's Service has done here since 1937.
Similarly, the Gospel message of welcoming the stranger is the basis of the work of Pittsburgh's Catholic Charities, which began settling refugees in 1975, after the Vietnam War resulted in people from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia needing a new place to live.
This year, Catholic Charities was given 137 arrivals, and most were from Bhutan, said Cathy Niebel, who directs refugee services for the agency.
Her counterpart at Jewish Family & Children's Services, Leslie Aizenman, was in charge of resettling 133 people this year, including the Rai family.
Representatives from both organizations greet the families at the airport and take them to their new home, usually an apartment, that has been prepared and furnished for them. The agencies will pay the rent for the first three months and help the newcomers learn to use public transportation, sign up for English classes, enroll their children in school and find jobs.
They aim for the refugee to be self-sufficient within six months.
"The whole idea is empowerment," Ms. Aizenman said.
A crucial part of empowerment is learning to speak English, Ms. Aizenman said, and at multiple offices of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, teachers slowly and steadily introduce the language to newly arrived refugees from countries ranging from Cuba to Ghana. Mr. and Ms. Rai have taken classes there.
"It's a safe place for them to come and feel comfortable," said Katie Wood, family literacy coordinator. She works with mostly mothers and children. They talk about health resources, expectations for students in American schools and the differences between gender roles in the United States and in their home country.
Matthew Onega teaches vocational English as a second language through the Pittsburgh Literacy Council.
On a recent morning in Mr. Onega's class, six men and five women, all from Bhutan, studied the rudimentary English and cultural skills they need to get a job, starting with numbers and the alphabet, then learning how to say their address, turn on a computer, and type and send e-mails.
Refugees are able to work as soon as they arrive in the United States. At the literacy center Downtown, students can take Mr. Onega's daily class for up to a year while they look for jobs. So far, 70 percent of students who take the class find employment before the year is up, he said.
Even with resettlement services, English classes and financial aid, finding employment and becoming self-sufficient can be extremely difficult for refugees, Khadra Mohammed said.
She founded the Pittsburgh Refugee Center in 2003 as a way to help refugees achieve self-sufficiency after Catholic Charities and the Jewish Family & Children's Services provide initial services. She currently has more than 250 clients.
Pittsburgh, with its distinct neighborhoods and suburbs, is a difficult city for immigrants and refugees to assimilate into, said Ms. Mohammed, who is an immigrant from Somalia.
She said it is important for "new blood" to come into Pittsburgh, and she hopes to see evidence of diversity here, such as more restaurants and stores started by immigrants and refugees.
"It is that population, that any time you have new generations, it's really what makes America, America," she said. "They are bringing with them not only their ambitions, but the drive to want to work hard, the dream."
One of the center's focuses is to encourage refugee high school students to pursue a college education.
Mr. Rai must take two buses each way to get to his job in a commercial laundry on Pittsburgh's North Side, where he earns enough to pay rent on the Whitehall apartment where he, his wife and their two children live.
The two-bedroom apartment is small, but it is much larger than the bamboo hut he shared with his extended family in the refugee camp in Nepal. When they first arrived, the Rais needed help learning how to use the shower and the stove. Now they have a television, a laptop with Internet access and a cell phone.
Their English is still elementary, but they are working on it and have taken classes. Ashmita, their daughter, goes to kindergarten at Paynter Elementary in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District. She can count to 10 and knows her ABCs. College is far in the future but, her parents said, it is a possibility for her.
Ms. Rai picks up her daughter at the bus stop near their apartment each day after school. Their nearly 2-year-old son, Ayush, likes to play with his parents' cell phone.
At the Thanksgiving celebration last week, the family's first, they watched Bhutanese dancers, a Karen choir from Burma and Burundi singers and dancers.
Their relative, Sancha Rai, another Bhutanese refugee who arrived in Pittsburgh via Scranton, said the extended family members plan to have their own Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving Day with the traditional American courses.
Also on the table, he said, will be traditional Bhutanese food.
First Published November 24, 2010 12:00 am