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More Afghan Refugees Are Destined For Pittsburgh. Support Groups Promise To Help Them To ‘Feel At Home’

Afghanistan Stranded Families
Shekib Rahmani
In this Aug. 16, 2021, file photo, hundreds of people gather near a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at the perimeter of the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thousands have gotten stuck there with the chaos following the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The number of Afghan refugees destined for Pittsburgh, or who have already arrived, has risen to three families and one individual. And more are expected to join them, according to local resettlement agency Jewish Family and Community Services.

Last week, the Squirrel Hill nonprofit announced that one family had already traveled from Afghanistan to Pittsburgh and that another was on the way. U.S. officials ultimately diverted the second family to another city, JFCS said, likely because the family has a relative or other acquaintance there. Two new families and one individual, however, have since been assigned to come to Pittsburgh as U.S. troops withdraw from their war-torn country.

An attack outside the Kabul airport on Thursday killed 12 U.S. service members and wounded at least 60 people.

JFCS, which has resettled refugees and immigrants from more than 100 countries over its 84-year history, still does not know how many Afghan refugees will end up in Pittsburgh in total — estimates of how many have yet to be evacuated range from 100,000 to 300,000.

Regardless of the number, JFCS’ director of refugee and immigrant services, Ivonne Smith-Tapia, said Thursday that local aid groups will be ready to meet the refugees’ needs.

Beyond offering housing, food, and clothing when the Afghans first arrive, Smith-Tapia said, JFCS will act quickly to tend to their mental health needs as they cope with the crisis still unfolding in their home country, as well as the challenges of starting a new life in Pittsburgh.

“When the families arrive, one of the first things that we do is we set up medical appointments for them. And those medical appointments are very comprehensive,” Smith-Tapia said. “Doctors let us know if there is any specific need for psychological support and emotional support.”

While one-on-one counseling is an option, Smith-Tapia said that kind of therapy isn’t always the right fit.

“Sometimes that's a foreign concept — not all cultures are used to talking to a therapist or talking about their feelings and private things with a stranger,” she said. And she noted that “in Pittsburgh, there is a lack of bilingual and bicultural therapists. So doing therapy with an interpreter … it's difficult for people.”

Instead, many refugees join support groups organized by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Smith-Tapia said. Bilingual community leaders who are trained in trauma-informed care facilitate the groups. And Smith-Tapia said they “help refugees that [have] recently arrived to feel at home and feel connected and supported.”

The groups also help to improve JFCS’ understanding of refugees’ needs, she added, because they “talk about issues that they want to talk [about]. It's very open … for addressing the needs that they have.”

For example, Smith-Tapia said, some groups choose to focus on improving their English, while others help with navigating school systems and parenting. Smith-Tapia said that JFCS invites experts to speak with the groups about their chosen topic.

Beyond providing mental health and language learning support, the agency also helps refugees to access jobs and schools. In addition, it serves as a link to coronavirus-related care, financial literacy education, and legal services, according to Smith-Tapia.

She noted that, despite the challenge of creating a new home in an unfamiliar place, “Refugees are very, very grateful. They are just happy to be in a safe place. They're happy to start a new life.”

And while “some people need more counseling and more support from their peers or from us,” she said, “overall [they] are very open to learning and to adapting.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.