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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Pittsburgh Mayor Stands By Effort To Welcome More Refugees

When Pittsburgh's Bill Peduto joined the mayors of 17 other cities in signing a letter to President Barack Obama last month that offers to harbor more Syrian refugees in the United States, he defended that welcome as "just the right thing to do."

Residents criticized that choice on social media and in a Letter to the Editor printed in the Post-Gazette that read, in part, “Aside from the obvious security risk… The city has enough of its own economic and social problems without being financially burdened and forced to take in any refugees who could be more easily resettled in countries closer to and more like their own.”

While on 90.5 WESA’s Essential Pittsburgh last week, the mayor shot back. 

“As a representative of government, ... I can only say we are better than that,” Peduto said. “The whole idea that we are bringing ISIS to Pittsburgh through a Trojan Horse is ludicrous.” 

The letter signed by the mayors reads, “As the mayors of cities across the country, we see first-hand the myriad ways in which immigrants and refugees make our communities stronger economically, socially and culturally. We will welcome the Syrian families to make homes and new lives in our cities.”

Peduto attempted to clarify that city government would not be accepting the refugees, instead he is working with individuals and organizations such as Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Holy Family Institute and the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.

Peduto said he does not know how many is the right number of refugees to be accepted into the country nor does he know how many should be settled in this part of the state, but he does know that the family history of many of those complaining about his decision to sign the letter do not go back as far as the history of Syrians being in the region.

“Long before my [Italian immigrant] grandfather came here, Syrians came here, they lived in the Hill District, they built the city of Pittsburgh… between 1870 and 1890,” Peduto said.

When refugees are allowed into the United States they are parsed out to the states by a federal program. In Pennsylvania, they are then further divided among cities and regions by the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program. No numbers have yet been set by any of those organizations. 

“My Grandfather raised me, he came from Italy in 1921 with a second grade education, he let me know about the stories of what it was like in Carnegie in the 1920s when he was told he was not welcome, Peduto's said. "And I will never let this city make that same mistake twice.”