Afghan Refugees; Pittsburgh’s Plans for Acclimation 

By Maxwell Robinette, Associate Editor

Photographed by Maxwell Robinette

Pittsburgh will welcome Afghan refugees in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Local nonprofits continue to work with the city to prepare for their arrival.

The U.S. will take in around 50,000 refugees as a result of the pullout. The 130,000 Afghans airlifted during withdrawal constitute one of the largest evacuations in history. The total population of Afghan refugees worldwide numbers around 2.6 million.

The State Department includes Pittsburgh among the 19 recommended metro areas across the country for refugees who receive Special Immigration Visas. The city’s low cost of living and housing availability make it a prime relocation option.

Refugees endure an extensive bureaucratic process. It can take years of screenings and paperwork for asylum seekers to find a country that accepts them.

In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI vet applicants rigorously. When these agencies finally grant entry into the U.S., applicants proceed to one of nine national organizations that oversee resettlement. These organizations coordinate with local groups, who do most of the heavy lifting situating new arrivals.

Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) serves as one of these local groups. They ensure arriving refugees have homes, living essentials and access to medical needs. They also provide services that help immigrants acclimate to their new lives.

The Afghan Refugee Crisis puts lots of pressure on organizations like JFCS. Normally, these groups have months to prepare for arriving refugees. Since the start of the crisis, they have around 48 hours to do the same amount of work.

JFCS Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Ivonne Smith-Tapia recently spoke about JFCS’s role in the crisis at a discussion panel hosted by La Roche’s Quainton Center for Global Engagement.

Photographed by Maxwell Robinette

Smith-Tapia spoke about different hurdles the organization faces. They cover a wide range of services, from delivering groceries to employment and school enrollment. There’s a steep learning curve for many new arrivals.

“It’s a lot of trust building in the beginning. You can imagine how overwhelming it is to not really know what’s going on, where you are, or who we really are,” Smith-Tapia said. “We provide all the support you can imagine for them to adapt and start a new life.”

JFCS provides thorough support early in the process because of federal policy. The State Department backs refugees financially for the first 90 days of resettlement only. After that, they get cut off. The policy aims to make newcomers self-sufficient.

“Resettlement agencies want refugees to start working as soon as possible and to pay their own bills. That’s very different from resettlement approaches in other countries. In other places, refugees are given more time to learn the language and adapt to the culture, and they provide more economic support to families,” Smith-Tapia said.

Many organizations across the country adopt a “community sponsorship” approach in response to these policies. Local groups continue supporting immigrants after government support ends.

Hello Neighbor serves as one of these community sponsorship groups. Marketing Manager Jordan Chepke and La Roche graduate Eric Ngnimmien joined the Quainton Center discussion panel to talk about the nonprofit’s role in welcoming refugees to Pittsburgh.

“Hello Neighbor was founded because we really saw an additional need after the initial resettlement process to come in and support our new neighbors as they rebuild their lives,” Chepke said.

Hello Neighbor matches refugees with dedicated community members who befriend and support them. They organize services like tutoring programs, mentor programs, and programs that connect mothers. They also raise funds from donations and provide essential items.

Additionally, they utilize marketing strategies to spread the word about the crisis and immigrant communities in need.

“We really focus on putting immigrant stories at the forefront of what we do,” Chepke said.

Both Chepke and Ngnimmien encourage interested people to follow Hello Neighbor on social media to get updates on community needs and volunteer opportunities.

Photographed by Maxwell Robinette

For further reading on local involvement in the Afghan Refugee Crisis, visit one of the following sites:

One comment

  • Professor Crowley

    Great article Max. I did not know Pittsburgh was selected as a settlement area for Afghan refugees. A lot of good information on an interesting topic.

    Professor Crowley


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