A year after the fall of Afghanistan, refugees are adjusting to a new life in Pittsburgh


Zainab Amiri arrived in Pittsburgh in September, pregnant and alone.

She had no choice, she said, but to leave her native Afghanistan.

“I couldn’t stay at home (in Afghanistan) and had to leave everything behind,” she said through an interpreter, looking at her infant son. “A woman needs a lot of support during pregnancy. I came here for a better future for my baby.

It has been a year since the Afghan government collapsed on August 15, 2021, after the Taliban took control of the capital, Kabul.

Amiri, 29, of Shadyside is one of about 800 Afghan refugees who arrived in western Pennsylvania between August and February, according to Squirrel Hill-based Jewish Family and Community Services Pittsburgh, one of the aid organizations to refugees. The estimated 800 people were among more than 80,000 refugees who fled Afghanistan following the United States’ decision to withdraw military forces from the country, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

After the fall of Kabul, Afghan men, women and children crowded onto US military evacuation flights and were transported to military bases.

Resettlement organizations such as Jewish Family and Community Services; Acculturation for justice, access and peace awareness; Hello neighbor; Christian Bethany; and Ansar have helped refugees who have arrived here via temporary protected status called humanitarian parole.

The groups help by obtaining housing, employment, school registration and medical appointments. They help in the orientation of public transport. They help establish bank accounts.

“If you can, imagine what it might take to go to a new country where you don’t know anyone, have no ties, and don’t speak the language or know the local culture,” said Sloane Davidson, founder and CEO. from Hello Neighbor based on Larimer. “That’s where we come in.”

Agencies are doing what they can to help, but it can be complicated, especially when there are so many refugees. The government gives each of them – including the children – $1,225, according to Ivonne Smith-Tapia, director of JFCS Refugee & Immigrant Services. For example, a family of five would receive $6,125.

Smith-Tapia said 785 Afghans arrived in Pittsburgh last year.

Federal funding pays the rent for a limited number of months, sometimes three, maybe more, depending on the rent. Private funds from individual donors and family foundations are also available.

“This allows us to provide ongoing support for a few more months while families stabilize and adjust to life in the United States,” Smith-Tapia said. “This is in addition to in-kind donations and gift cards provided by community members who help us get groceries and household items for families as soon as they arrive.”

These extra funds are available for housing and food, especially for those with high needs, said Dana Gold, chief operating officer of Squirrel Hill-based JFCS.

Ansar of Pittsburgh, which is based at Carnegie but has an office at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, also helps resettle refugees. Wiam Younes, founder and chief executive of Ansar, said the group had helped Afghan refugees in everything from shelter to food over the past year.

She said religious organizations such as the Islamic Center help refugees because they understand their culture and beliefs.

“From the feedback we received, the Afghan refugees said the Islamic Center was welcoming and they felt good,” Younes said. “When they arrive in a new country, they have a certain anxiety.”

“I need support”

Amiri knows she needs to find a job, but she speaks little English and has one child and little support.

She is worried about her husband, a former Afghan army special forces commander who is hiding in Afghanistan. Amiri was first lieutenant.

She knows that she will soon have to pay her rent herself. Hello Neighbor is helping to pay for her one bedroom apartment. She said she needed help with most things, including how to find work and understanding doctors during exams.

“The biggest challenge was the loneliness,” she said. “Being without a family is difficult.”

Amiri comes from a large family and is used to having dinner with lots of people. For company, she finds YouTube videos of people dining and watching while she eats. She became emotional when talking about having her son at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Oakland without any family members.

She was grateful to have an interpreter with her when she gave birth.

“She helped me a lot,” Amiri said. “I love her so much.”

Amiri asked Hello Neighbor for help with her husband, but those requests are being handled by the federal government, Davidson said. She said the agency’s goal is to support the people of Pittsburgh.

“It wasn’t safe for me to stay in Afghanistan, and I want a better future for my son,” Amiri said. “I love my husband and miss him, and I’m afraid he can’t come here. It was not an easy decision to leave and come to a new country. My future is uncertain, but I feel safer here.

When Amiri arrived in Pittsburgh, she was living in one of three government-approved hotels, Davidson said. She said most refugees had little time to pack and arrived with only a backpack and a few personal items.

“I was someone at home, but not here,” Amiri said, “because I don’t speak the language and I need support.”

Obstacles and Challenges

The difficulty Afghan refugees face in acclimatizing cannot be overstated, Gold said.

The language barrier. Cultural differences. Loneliness.

Everyday tasks like grocery shopping, writing a check, or taking a bus are suddenly monumental undertakings.

“Think if you came to a new country,” Gold said. “You’re overloaded with what’s going on, and your brain can be overloaded with stimuli, so it can be traumatic and difficult to learn something new.

“The goal is for them to become independent. We’re doing what we can to help them get back on their feet, but we also have to give them a reasonable time to be on their own.

One of the first orders of the day is to connect refugees with a resource such as tutors from Literacy Pittsburgh. It can be difficult for those who are not fluent in English to take the first step. They often look for interpreters to translate.

“Think of looking at a language that looks like a bunch of squiggles on a page and trying to learn that,” Gold said. “It can be stressful.”

“I don’t want to be addicted”

An Afghan flag, with black, green and red vertical stripes and a verse from the Quran, the Muslim holy book, hangs on the wall of Noorullah Amiri’s apartment in Shadyside.

A member of special forces in Afghanistan, Amiri – unrelated to Zainab Amiri – said he arrived here last year with his wife and children.

“I think if I didn’t come to the United States they would kill me and my family,” Noorullah Amiri, 31, said through an interpreter. “I’m safe here but I’m worried about my family there.”

With a lack of English skills, he said he “faces a problem”. It is even difficult for her to write a check to pay her rent because of the language barrier.

Learning a new language, he says, will take time.

“I can’t learn to speak English overnight,” he said.

Her daughter and son watch American cartoons on YouTube to acclimatize to their new home.

Amiri works in a cleaning company for which he has to take two buses every day, a four-hour ordeal in all. He said he was trying to save for a car but hadn’t bought one yet because he had sent money to help his family in Afghanistan.

He said he came for a better life.

“I don’t want my children to have a miserable life in Afghanistan,” Amiri said. “People here are nice. I’ve always wanted to live in a city like this. But I need to learn some things to be able to stand up.

“I don’t want to be addicted.”

“Nothing happens overnight”

Being fluent in English helped Azizullah Jan, 45, of Crafton Heights adapt to life in the United States better than most refugees.

He and his family arrived in August. Their first stop was Wisconsin, where they spent a few months before moving to Pittsburgh in February. He is here with his wife, one daughter and two sons. He has a son still in Afghanistan, one in Nebraska and one in Iowa.

Jan said that the main concern of all Afghans is to be able to stay in the United States permanently.

Jan was an interpreter for the US Army in Afghanistan. He recently started a job at a vitamin company. He said his boss gave him and his colleagues time for Muslim prayers at lunchtime.

“It was difficult at first because it was such a long flight to get here,” he said. “We like it here. We can enjoy religious freedom here.

Jan recalled the day he left Afghanistan, August 24, 2021.

“There were so many people and some people waited for hours to get in (at the airport),” he said. “Outside the airport, people from all walks of life were trying to enter the airport and leave Afghanistan. Everyone was panicked. »

He said he knew there were challenges for those who did not speak English, but the agencies were helping to access in-person learning. He said there are resources such as virtual lessons and a translation from English to Pashto (one of Afghanistan’s two main languages) on YouTube.

“Nothing happens overnight,” he said. ” What does it mean ? … ‘You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.’

“We are happy. It is calm here.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact JoAnne by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .


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