Rebecca’s Story- from South Sudan to Pittsburgh - SHIM

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Rebecca’s Story- from South Sudan to Pittsburgh

Rebecca with her daughterPlenty has been written about the refugee and immigrant experience, and it can be easy to forget that there are real people caught up in the issue. Statistics like more than 25,000 refugees came to the US in 2022, a 123% increase from 2021 or that the country has welcomed 3.5 million refugees since 1975 can make them seem less human.

Each refugee has a unique story. Their stories are full of trauma, perseverance, love, and loss. Many become successful American citizens, living their version of the American dream. People like Rebecca.

Rebecca came to Pittsburgh seventeen years ago as a mother of two young children. Married at the age of 16 in South Sudan to a “lost boy”, she was happy to leave a war-torn country and join her husband in hopes of a better life. According to the International Rescue Committee, 20,000 young boys were forced to flee Sudan in 1987, half of whom died during their treacherous journey. The US welcomed about 4,000 of these now grown “lost boys” in 2001, and Pittsburgh welcomed around 50 of them. Rebecca’s husband Peter was one of them.

Because Rebecca’s immigration was part of a family reunification, Peter had to wait until he obtained citizenship and could prove financial independence before she could join him. When Rebecca arrived at the airport, she was greeted by Ann, her husband’s employment specialist from Catholic Charities. Ann helped Rebecca move into a home and access vital resources. Volunteer engagement coordinator Ann with Rebecca

“Refugees are expected to be self-sufficient very quickly with no additional assistance from resettlement agencies. Everything that led to their success was all them!”- Ann

Ann is now the volunteer engagement coordinator here at SHIM, where we have a special focus on serving refugees and immigrants in the South Hills. Ann is excited to see Rebecca’s children attending SHIM’s youth programs.

“When you find the good people, they help.”- Rebecca

Initially the first wife from the Dinka tribe who moved to Pittsburgh, Rebecca felt isolated. Rebecca made sure to speak Dinka at home to ensure that her children knew the language and could communicate with relatives back home. As they video chat, her children can see in the background the life that their mother left behind. Rebecca also enjoys cooking traditional food and wearing traditional clothing. She shares cultural gifts with her coworkers such as perfumes and lotions brought back from trips to South Sudan.

Rebecca, her husband, and four children shared a two-bedroom apartment in Whitehall’s Prospect Park neighborhood for nine years. Around the same time, SHIM opened its South Hills Family Center in Prospect Park. Supported by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, SHIM operated a food pantry, family support walk-in services, and youth programs. Rebecca’s children participated in SHIM’s youth programs. SHIM later relocated to its current site at the Wallace Building, situated at 41 Macek Drive, where her younger children are still involved in SHIM’s youth programs. When Rebecca’s fifth child was born, her landlord told her that seven people in a two-bedroom apartment was unacceptable, so they started looking for houses.

AcholRebecca was eager to support her growing family and found employment in housekeeping and environmental services. Thanks to her dedication and strong work ethic, employers were excited to hire her. She saved up enough money for a downpayment on a house, and began house hunting with her former caseworker, now friend, Ann.

While this story may resemble a quintessential American dream tale, it is crucial to highlight some significant cultural experiences along the way. For instance, it is customary for men to have multiple wives in Sudan. Rebecca’s husband was also supporting another family. This financial strain fell heavily on Rebecca, as she worked to support her five children. Add to that the fact that Rebecca was sending money to relatives in Sudan for education and medical expenses, and it is inspiring that she managed to save enough money to purchase a home.

“I don’t mind the second wife as much as I mind the cost!”- Rebecca

As Americans think about resources that refugees need, their contributions to society can get lost. Many refugee families work opposite shifts, with one parent working nights and the other working days to avoid childcare costs. Rebecca tirelessly works two jobs, seven days a week, to ensure the well-being of her family. Rebecca has received accolades at work and her five children are studious and respectful. The younger kids enjoy the individualized homework help they receive at after school programs at SHIM, and her two oldest children are thriving in college.

“My kids are my priority. I want them to have a good education, be independent, and stay away from bad things. I want life to be successful and easy, not a struggle like mine.”

America is a melting pot, so they say, and Pittsburgh is lucky to have a culturally diverse population that enriches its community. The city contains large populations from Bhutan/Nepal, Burma, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Iraq, Russia, Somalia, Rwanda, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Pittsburghers also hail from Afghanistan, the Philippines, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, Poland, Sudan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, and Vietnam. According to the Center for Inclusion and Belonging, a project of the American Immigration Council, Pittsburgh immigrants paid $298 million in taxes in 2019! They also contributed $3.5 billion to the local economy.

Adding to the economic contributions of resettled Pittsburghers is their contribution to the labor force working manufacturing jobs that may otherwise have been eliminated or moved elsewhere. In 2019, immigrants contributed $26.8 million to Medicare and $93.9 million to Social Security, bolstering America’s safety net.

Again, statistics paint a broad picture, but when you meet someone like Rebecca, you realize that refugees and immigrants share with native Pittsburghers ambition, a desire to support their families, and strong work ethics. Their different experiences give them unique worldviews that they share, enriching Pittsburghers’ lives. People like Rebecca educate neighbors about different countries, help colleagues understand cultural differences, and inspire their children to become valued community members.

Learn more about Achol, Rebecca’s daughter.


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