While the refugees in our community have faced challenges and overcome battles that are seemingly incomprehensible, just like each of us, they are working hard every day to build the best life possible for their families and children. Whether it’s through counseling, child care, group discussions, financial planning and more, we are happy to help them prosper here in Pittsburgh.
Together, we have 15 years of experience working with refugees and immigrants in the South Hills, along with extensive training in working with multicultural populations. But nothing has taught us more than the day-to-day experiences and interactions with this diverse and wonderful community. It is a joy to get to know people on an individual level, and learn from those who have had life experiences drastically different from our own.
Below are the top five things you might not know about your neighbors who are refugees that we have learned through our experience:
1. They come here with a range of education and work experience – and often have to start over when they arrive. Many refugees have advanced degrees from their home countries in fields like medicine, engineering, business, and school administration, yet those credentials are often not accepted here. Most new arrivals have to start with English classes, pursue a GED, attend community college for basic pre-requisites, and then finally apply for higher education. In the meantime, they need to start working within the first 90 days after arrival in order to start paying for their rent, utilities, transportation, clothing and more. Many people find it surprising that refugees actually have to start paying back the travel loan that paid for their plane tickets after living here for only six months.
2. They often speak more than two – or three, or four – languages. Many refugees were an ethnic minority in their home country. This usually means that they speak one (or more than one) local language, as well as the majority language of their country. For example, someone from an isolated area of Burma might speak Po’ Karen (their mother tongue), S’gaw Karen (a neighboring dialect), Burmese (the nation’s official language), and Thai (the language spoken in the bordering country where their refugee camp was located). While some may fault them for taking too much time to learn English, it’s important to remember they have spent their entire lives already learning multiple languages.
3. For many refugees, coming to the United States was not the life journey they imagined. Refugees, by definition, were forced from their homeland fleeing persecution and danger. They may have left suddenly in the middle of the night in order to escape violence, imprisonment, or torture. Many of them thought this would be a temporary relocation – they believed they would someday get to return to their homes. As Warsan Shire, a Somali poet, puts it, “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Families wait years in refugee camps to be allowed to return home, and only when it becomes clear that going back home isn’t a possibility do some decide to apply for resettlement in a different country.
4. Refugees spend an average of 17 years being uprooted from their lives, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This time may be spent fleeing their native country, finding safety, living in a refugee camp or being resettled to another country. While not all refugees spend time in refugee camps, many spend years and years. Others flee to cities outside of their native country and live without documentation, being paid unfair wages and living daily with the fear of being caught and deported until they can find a safer, more long-term solution.
Many of the Bhutanese refugees resettled in Pittsburgh spent 18 years in Nepali refugee camps before being resettled. Individuals faced horrid conditions at these refugee camps. Refugees in Nepal were not permitted to work, their food was rationed, and they lived in one-room bamboo structures that did not protect them from the winter cold or summer heat and had no electricity or running water.
5. Many refugees support friends and family in their native country with any extra money they have. When refugee families create budgets, money is often set aside to support others. One study found that Somali-Americans often send back $3,800 per person each year to Somalia. Of the two million people that have been forced out of Somalia, they send approximately $1.4 billion dollars back to family and friends annually. This shows that refugee resettlement has an impactful byproduct of providing foreign aid to countries that continue to struggle.
At SHIM, we practice cultural humility by being open to asking questions and believing that we do not have to know everything about another person to begin a conversation with them. The individuals and families we have met at the Family Center love to talk about their lives and tell their stories, and they are open to answering questions.
If you are interested in learning more yourself, SHIM offers a variety of volunteer opportunities. Whether your skills and interests make you a good fit for volunteering with the food pantry, afterschool program or youth mentoring, we can assist you with finding the right fit and opportunity.
If we can all practice cultural humility and take a step back to think about our refugee neighbors and everything they have been faced with, we can build a better South Hills community. For everyone.
Co-authored by SHIM Assistant Family Center Director Casey Rich and former SHIM Community Counselor Lori Haller.