The Next Page / At home in Pittsburgh: Three immigrant stories
Born in Swamitar, Bhutan, Tek Rimal is from a family of nine. He spent 19 years in a hut roofed in plastic sheeting at a refugee camp in Nepal before arriving in Pittsburgh in 2011. Now he lives in Bellevue with his wife, Chandra, and their 6-year-old son, Anuj.
Safiya Boucaud journeyed from Trinidad and Tobago to New York City as a college student. She came to Pittsburgh with her husband, graduated from Pitt law School and has settled here as a lawyer. The new organiztion Vibrant Pittsburgh helped connect her with "a diverse cross section" of Pittsburghers.
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This is a continuation of today's story by Christine H. O'Toole : "Pittsburgh's new immigrants equals brain gain."
They're new in town. How's it going? • Several Pittsburgh non-profits are grappling with the disparate needs of international arrivals. For professionals with multiple degrees, a job for a trailing spouse or a connection to the high-tech community cements the bond. For economic migrants, a micro-loan can aid a new business. For refugees, social services and public education provide a foothold. Ethnic benevolent societies, an old Pittsburgh tradition, may be newly relevant. • The paths of several 21st-century arrivals suggest the array of tasks a welcoming effort must include.
Tek Rimal: A refugee from Bhutan, bolstered by compatriots
Born in Swamitar, Bhutan, Tek Rimal's family of nine spent 19 years in a hut roofed in plastic sheeting at a refugee camp in Nepal before arriving in Pittsburgh, 7,500 miles away. Ethnic strife in his home country has pushed more than 100,000 Lhotshampa refugees west, to camps across the Himalayas in Nepal. A forced migration on a similar scale in the United States would displace 49 million Americans.
"We first went to India," he recalls. "We were put in a trailer and dumped at the border. Nepali [soldiers] picked us up 500 miles from our birthplace. Some people were hurt. Some were imprisoned." The U.N. Office of Refugee Resettlement has now brought nearly 50,000 Bhutanese to the United States. Of those, 745 have arrived in Pittsburgh since 2008. Mr. Rimal followed his parents to Pittsburgh, arriving Jan. 11, 2011. As a caseworker drove him into the city, snow was falling. The Western Pennsylvania hills recalled his home village in Bhutan: "Our Nepal camp was on the plains."
Pittsburgh's three refugee resettlement agencies -- Catholic Charities, Jewish Family & Children's' Services and Northern Area Multiple Service Center -- provide each new arrival with $1,145 in cash and a bus pass. Families get a furnished apartment near public transit with 10 weeks' paid rent and five days' supply of food. Caseworkers connect them to schooling, health screenings, food stamps and other social services. Immediate employment is essential; most Bhutanese find work as hotel housekeepers or in food service.
Mr. Rimal quickly found friends among the Bhutanese. A growing number are "second wave" migrants, drawn to the city in time-honored fashion: by word of mouth. He speculates that those reuniting with friends and relatives have swelled Pittsburgh's Bhutanese population to 2,500. "There are lots of jobs here," he explains.
While resettlement agencies attempt to place families together, many, like Mr. Rimal's family, are scattered. His brothers and sisters, now living in Erie, Virginia and North Dakota, might eventually reunite here, but, as he explains, "They don't want to quit their jobs in other places yet."
The Bhutanese wave follows the pattern of other group migrations to Pittsburgh over the past decade. Leslie Aizenman, refugee services director at Jewish Family and Children's Services, says her agency has ushered 10,000 legal immigrants from 71 countries to the city since 2001. In the early years of the decade, African refugees predominated; dozens of Somalis and Sudanese arrived in Allegheny County. In 2005, 100 Russians arrived. Between 2006 and 2008, the Burmese and Uzbeks took the lead. And since 2008, the Bhutanese have dominated.
Refugee resettlement agencies, which contract with the State Department to bring families here, find and furnish homes, arrange for medical screenings and school enrollments, arrange employment and refer applicants to referrals for food stamps and Medicaid, Social Security and English language training. (While some refugees are illiterate in their native language, many others attend English classes while living in refugee camps.)
The need for social and health services persists for many newcomers. Since 2008, the county's Department of Human Services has convened an Immigrant and International Advisory Council. Barbara Murock, the DHS project director, says the council is now the "go-to" group to figure out top priorities for immigrants and social service providers. Each of its committee co-chairs is an immigrant.
"We are at a tipping point," she says of the region. "We didn't have growth in the 1980s. We're lacking in diversity, but starting to grow. But we need more structure" to address family needs.
Safiya Boucaud: From Trinidad to NYC to PGH
Safiya Boucaud first journeyed from Trinidad and Tobago to New York City as a college student. A native English speaker, she assimilated quickly into life in Brooklyn. When she came to Pittsburgh with her husband, who had enrolled at University of Pittsburgh Law School, she missed the big city.
"Pittsburgh was a little slow for me," recalls Ms. Boucuad, now 30. "I missed New York terribly." She began to study law at Pitt, too, but "we had no friends outside law school." After receiving her law degree last May, she applied for a new Vibrant Pittsburgh program that brings international professionals together to network and learn about their new city. The New Arrivals Bridge program, developed by Leadership Pittsburgh, gave her the entree she sought.
The monthly program "brought together an interesting and diverse cross section. It was refreshing to meet people on different paths," says the attorney, now practicing with Sadler Law, an oil and gas title firm. Now renovating a home in the Mexican War Streets, she and husband relish exploring their new neighborhood. "We wanted North Side because it's diverse, and not just ethnically. There's such a range of ages and interests. It's a good place to settle."
Jane Chounaem: A Thai restaurateur who goes full force
The glass door of the Smiling Banana Leaf is fogged over on a winter's night, suggesting a busy kitchen inside the tiny Highland Park cafe. Owner Jane Chounaem is stirring curries and slicing bamboo, pressed into service after losing a cook. Since she generally works seven days a week, she cheerfully jumps back into the chef's role.
Ms. Chounaem, a 33-year-old Thai native with a technical school degree, didn't know how to cook before coming to the United States in 1999.
As she learned the business working at the restaurants of fellow expatriates in the East End, she carefully saved $30,000. When a former pizza joint vacated along Bryant Street, she opened the 20-seat eatery in 2008.
With three employees, Ms. Chounaem has managed to survive the recession, even managing to expand. "This size is right," she says. "I want to expand, but not too fast."
Ms. Chounaem's Thai nickname, Tuk-ta, means "baby doll." But her drive and determination suggest the toughness that characterizes other immigrant entrepreneurs.
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The Kaufmann Foundation has documented that immigrants are more likely to start a business -- from bodegas and cafes to high-tech firms -- than native-born Americans. Start-up capital is a problem for most. Though Ms. Chounaem financed her start-up from savings, she laughs as she admits, "My credit card helps me a lot."
For many other businesses, financing is a stumbling block.
Depi Phuyel, who opened Nepali Bazaar on Saw Mill Run Boulevard in 2010, recently sold the business to his brother. The business was "running well," says the Bhutanese immigrant, and his strategy of offering van transportation to customers without cars had proved successful. Still, he concluded that the business wasn't making enough money. He would like to open a Nepali restaurant, but is unable to obtain a bank loan without a credit history.
Rufus Idris, the Nigerian-born director of CEED (Christian Evangelistic Economic Development), thinks that micro-loans can give foreign-born business owners who lack credit a leg up. His organization administers a $600,000 grant from The Heinz Endowments and the U.S. Department of Commerce for its Skills to Wealth program, targeting immigrant and minority businesspeople. (Minnesota has a similar program, but acts as an investor.)
Recipients of the loans, from $500 to $10,000, are mostly women. International Fashion House, a Garfield textile company specializing in African designs and hospital scrubs, is among this year's start-ups. Other artisans sell crafts at the monthly International Market at the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District. And while a few open restaurants, relying on family instead of hiring employees, Mr. Idris says ethnic food businesses often struggle.
"The profit margins are low, despite customer volume," he notes.
While he believes that Pittsburgh is "yearning" for more immigrant entrepreneurs, he says, "A strategy is lacking. [The region] is overly focused on Pitt and CMU."
Mr. Idris, who came to Pittsburgh from Rhode Island in 2007, says a second wave of Nigerian immigrants from New England has found Pittsburgh an affordable place to buy property. He says that more than a dozen immigrant families moved here from Rhode Island and bought abandoned homes through the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority to renovate. "When you own property, that's a lifelong tie," he says. "You're paying taxes."
First Published May 27, 2012 12:00 am