Polyglot South Hills is home to many of Pittsburgh's new immigrants
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Affordability and safety factor nearly as high as jobs among most immigrant families' priorities. And in the aging South Hills neighborhood of Carrick, immigrants have found both.
Alice Vaday, who has lived on Brownsville Road for nearly three decades, first learned about her new Bhutanese neighbors in 2009. Newly elected to the Carrick Community Council, she attended a presentation by the Jewish Family & Children's Service during which Bhutanese newcomers recounted their journeys to Pittsburgh. She admits now that her first reaction to the immigrants was, "Great -- more people on welfare." But after hearing the translated stories of the speakers, she was humbled and impressed.
"I had tears in my eyes after hearing them. They changed my perception," she said. "They are good people who would love to be in their home country. The things they've suffered -- and we're not footing the bill [for their support]. They only get a few months of assistance, then it's God bless you, go get a job and you're on your own." After trying to help a Bhutanese teenager get a job, she realized that students and adults struggle with the language barrier.
With its new designation as the Pittsburgh school district's newest English as a Second Language school, Carrick's Concord Elementary has become a magnet for immigrant students. In September, the program had 15 students; by January, it enrolled 40. Some are Bhutanese siblings from the neighborhood. "When they first come, they're afraid to speak because they're not perfect," said ESL teacher Lea Thompson. "But after a few days, they catch on quickly."
Jonathan Covel, ESL director for the Pittsburgh schools, says 630 of the district's 26,000 students are enrolled in ESL classes. Students who can read and write their native language and who have been exposed to English are quickly mainstreamed, he said; others may need five to 10 years of instruction to become fluent.
Mr. Covel says that Nepali, spoken by the Bhutanese, is now the most common native language of ESL students, followed by Spanish and Kiswahili (Swahili), spoken in eastern and central Africa. The district ESL program also arranges for translators at school parent-teacher conferences.
Over the past 15 years, refugee families resettled in Whitehall's Prospect Park apartments have taught the Baldwin-Whitehall School District about the difficulties of acculturation. The South Hills Interfaith Ministries sponsored after-school sports and activities for the new students. Now, as families are resettled elsewhere in the region, Ginny Deasey, the district's director of pupil services, says that newcomers tend to be second-wave migrants, with less culture shock.
They are following the path of Pittsburgh's European migrants, who founded churches and benevolent societies to serve their communities. The facades of their enduring old buildings are a reminder that ethnic groups find leadership and strength from within. Proliferating groups like ANKUR, the Indian Graduate Student Association at Pitt, offer a common identity to minority cultures.
"When you come as a student, that's how you learn the culture here," says Shailesh Bokil. A shareholder and director of recruiting for CEI, a South Hills IT firm, he has lived in Pittsburgh since 1996. He measures the growth of subcontinent immigration to Pittsburgh by the expansion of the Pittsburgh Cricket Association in which he competes. The amateur league has grown from three to 15 clubs in the past seven years. The nonprofit Union of African Communities has attracted members from 25 nations. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce focuses on business opportunities and networking for Latinos.
Bhutanese immigrant Tek Rimal believes that it's time for his community to create a similar nonprofit. The Bhutanese have already formed a council of neighborhood leaders across the region and have created a mission statement for a formal nonprofit organization, tentatively called the Bhutanese Community of Pittsburgh.
Through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services' Immigrants and Internationals Initiative, the Bhutanese have met with Pitt graduate students who will guide them through a strategic plan and help them incorporate a new benevolent association.
"They are well organized and acculturated," says Barbara Murock, who steers the county project. "They are prepared to be here."
First Published May 27, 2012 12:00 am