Casey Rich, Family Center Site Director
Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in Pittsburgh’s Afghan Support Center (ASC), a huge resource fair designed specifically for Afghan families who have relocated to the area. The four-day event showcased a host of Allegheny County’s most dedicated social service providers at the Pittsburgh Marriot downtown. Run by staff at Cherokee Federal, the ASC was the fourth in a series of seven resource fairs held across the country this year geared toward newer arrivals from Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Welcome. At SHIM, we work with a relatively small number of Afghan families, so we thought this would be a great opportunity for outreach to a new community, some of whom live and work in the South Hills.
Who brought this event to Pittsburgh?
Cherokee Federal is “a team of tribally owned federal contracting companies focused on building solutions, solving complex challenges, and serving the nation’s mission.” The Cherokee Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the United States, with more than 400,000 members. Entirely owned by the Cherokee Nation and headquartered in northeast Oklahoma, they aim to invest all profits back into Cherokee communities, by supporting native-owned businesses, community education and training programs, and various social services.
Why did they choose Pittsburgh for the ASC?
Partnered with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Cherokee Federal identified Pittsburgh as a city that would benefit from hosting this event – a place with a significant population of Afghan families that continues to grow. As of a year ago, local refugee resettlement organizations had welcomed between 700-800 Afghan individuals. These families are living all over Allegheny County. Affordable housing is scarce, so it’s rare that families get to live in the same community or neighborhood as other speakers of their language. Instead, they’re scattered across the city, often without access to cars or drivers’ licenses. These are the folks who need resources the most – those who are not well-connected to an immediate support system they can lean on. Enter the Afghan Support Center: a limited-time, one-stop shop for any resource ranging from public benefits to employment help, family support services to legal assistance.
What is this community facing? What are their needs?
First, some important things you might not know about these new Pittsburghers:
1. People from Afghanistan are referred to as Afghans (the noun) or Afghan (the adjective). Sometimes you may hear the term Afghani used to describe the people, which is incorrect and can be offensive. Only the unit of money used in the country is called an Afghani.
2. Most people from Afghanistan speak either Dari or Pashto. Which language you speak depends on what region you are from. They are both written with the Arabic alphabet, so it is often assumed that Afghans speak Arabic – especially since they are also generally Muslim.
3. A large percentage of recent Afghan arrivals come to the US with a unique visa designation called a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) that is available only to those who worked for the US government in their country as translators, interpreters, or in similar supportive professional roles. This is different from the other refugees that SHIM serves, who came with designated refugee status and did not have a previous relationship with the US government. (Fun fact: Another group with access to the SIV program is the Iraqis who helped the US during the Iraq War.)
The major concern of most recent arrivals seems to be, unsurprisingly, the same as most Americans’: how can I provide for my family so we can afford what we need and live healthy lives? For the first few months, resettlement agencies help new families coordinate healthcare, enroll kids in school, find and pay for housing and necessities, and navigate their new city. But after only three months, most able-bodied adults are expected to be working to pay for their own family’s expenses. The work you can get with limited English is…well, limited. With housing and food prices skyrocketing, these lower-wage jobs do not cover the bills. This is what I heard echoed throughout the event as I talked to people: I’m working but it’s not enough. My apartment is too small and somehow also too expensive. Even with all the adults in the house working, we cannot afford basic needs. The compassion I observed in my fellow service providers was powerful, as we all tried to find ways we could help. I also saw many people signing up for English classes, parents expressing interest in family support programs , and people asking questions of PennDOT employees about language access for driving exams. But it was noticeable how many conversations returned to worry over basic needs and income.
What was the event like?
Cherokee Federal arranged the event with these families and their needs in mind. Drop-in childcare was available each day. A team of more than 20 interpreters was assembled to accompany individual families around the room, having previewed the resources available so they would be ready for attendees’ questions. Transportation was also offered to those who requested a ride.
With 70+ organizations present in a single hotel ballroom the event could have felt chaotic and overwhelming. But the Cherokee staff did an incredible job keeping everything organized and running smoothly. I watched so many providers do warm hand-offs to each other – instead of I can’t help you with that, go over there, it was I can’t help you with that, but I know who can. Let me introduce you! I was proud to be part of such a welcoming, supportive community of helpers. It really felt like all of Pittsburgh had come out to embrace these newcomers.
You can see the whole list of amazing local providers here.
Interested in learning more about refugees and immigrants in our area? Start with this fantastic resource put together by the Whitehall Public Library with help from SHIM and Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh (BCAP).