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Some In Pittsburgh's Burgeoning Afghan Population Already Facing Harassment

Virginia Alvino Young
90.5 WESA
Munir Zazai lives with his 5-year-old daughter Hena and wife Helay in Knoxville.

Munir and Helay Zazai’s second-floor Knoxville apartment has just the essentials: a lone sofa in the corner of the living room and one IKEA cooking pot on the stove.

They live with their 5-year-old daughter Hena, who often plays on her mom’s phone. “She watches YouTube,” Helay said. 

Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA
Hena often watches videos on YouTube on her mom's phone.

The family came to Pittsburgh from Afghanistan four months ago. Growing up there, Munir taught himself English at a young age and once worked as a loan officer at a bank. In Afghanistan's capitol, Kabul, he worked for the NATO Training Mission for five years, translating curricula and official military documents for Afghan Special Forces.

His job was incredibly dangerous, he said.

Not only did he face explosions and suicide bombers around the base, “the terrorists’ first priority is to target those people who work with United States Forces,” said Munir. “They have brutally killed many translators in Afghanistan.”

Translators are targeted, because they’re crucial to the success of the U.S. mission. But, it’s a mission that Munir said his family believes in.

“I wish to see my country a terrorism-free place, and this was a project which was good for all the world, not only for my country,” he said.

But he feared for his wife and daughter, and knew he couldn’t stay, so he applied for a Special Immigrant Visa.

While the number of refugees resettled in Pennsylvania is on the decline, Pittsburgh is seeing a spike in families from Afghanistan. Like the Zazais, they’re coming under Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, which they’re eligible for because of their work helping the U.S. military.

Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA
Helay and Munir Zazai's Knoxville apartment contains only the furnishings that were supplied by their resettlement agency.

The limited program is only for Afghan and Iraqi nationals who work with the U.S. military – many as translators. While the number used to be much higher, now SIVs are capped at 50 per year. Munir said it wasn’t too difficult to apply, even though it’s notoriously bureaucratic, and requires petitions, proofs and fees, and took more than three years to come through.

They finally escaped the war, but upon their arrival in the U.S., Helay was immediately met with harassment from people on the bus and in the first neighborhood they settled to, Munhall.

“They used to shout on her,” said Munir, “and even they used some gestures, abusing gestures for her to disturb her, harass her, insult her.”

Munir often works overnight, leaving his wife and daughter home alone. The harassment peaked one evening earlier this year.

“Late night, maybe 11 o’clock, I hear some people ... on my window,” said Helay.

Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA
Munir Zazai warms milk for his daughter Hena.

Groups of people surrounded her home and hurled stones through her windows. She turned out the lights and hid with her daughter. When she looked out, she saw several men go back into their houses, which were right next door. Munir rushed home. They didn’t call the police.

“I’m crying about that, because I came for my safety,” said Helay. “Safety is most important for me.”

The Zazai’s recognize that although it was scary, it pales in comparison to the environment back in their home country.

“I think it is not very serious thing like we faced in Afghanistan,” said Munir, “because there we were facing the life threatening situations, but here I think this is just something racial, not very dangerous.”

But Rebecca Johnson took it seriously.

“This was one of the first severe instances we’ve had of harassment,” said Johnson, director of the refugee resettlement program at Northern Area Multi-Service Center, also known as NAMS. When the organization was conducting a routine follow-up with the Zazais they learned about the incident and worked with the police to file a report. The family was relocated to a hotel for two weeks, before being settled in their new apartment in Knoxville, which they’ve been enjoying for the past month.

Johnson said there were a few factors that made the Zazai’s resettlement unique and likely contributed to the harassment.

“This was a new area that we had resettled this family in, but also, a lot of our clients are coming into areas that have pretty large communities of whatever their population might be,” said Johnson.

For instance, there is a cluster of Bhutanese refugees living in the South Hills, but Afghans are a new group, without an established network to support them. Affordable housing is difficult to find, but the Munhall apartment was on a bus line and the family had English skills, so the agency took a chance on a new location. Johnson doesn’t excuse the attack, but recognized that existing residents probably weren’t used to seeing people like Helay, who wears a headscarf every day.

“I just think on our end, there’s just more education and outreach to be done to help teach Pittsburgh and these communities about refugees,” said Johnson. “I will say this was a fairly isolated incident in resettlement.”

Still, NAMS does hear about instances of verbal harassment of various groups regularly. As a result of the rock-throwing, Johnson said her organization is working on ways to encourage resettled families to speak up about issues they’re facing, especially when they come from cultures that aren’t accustomed to reaching out to law enforcement. NAMS will also start offering self-defense classes that cater specifically to Afghan women.

The organization has resettled about 25 Afghans since October, making them one of Pittsburgh’s fastest growing populations. Overall, Johnson said she sees a bright future for them. That’s in part due to the nature of their experience as translators, which means at least one member of the family is fluent in English.

“That opens a lot of doors right off the bat,” said Johnson. “You have more of an entry into the workforce. A lot of them have educational backgrounds that are stronger than maybe populations that were living in a refugee camp for 20 [or] 15 years.”

The Zazais said they’re very happy in their new apartment and hope to stay; there’s even another resettled Afghan family living on the first floor. And for the most part, Munir said the harassment has calmed down, though it has not disappeared.

“Just one day on bus 51, one woman touched me and told me ‘I don’t like Muslims,’” said Helay.

Munir said it's easier for him to blend in than Helay, and as a result, he experiences much less harassment. And even though he was familiar with American culture from working on the military base, starting life in a new country is tough. Being able to provide for his family helps, and he praises Pittsburgh’s affordability, even while he works as a cleaner at a hotel Downtown.

“This is my first job in the United States, so I accept that, it’s OK if I do a job in this position, but I hope that I can find better jobs in the future,” Munir said.

He said he would like to get back into his field and has been applying for translator jobs. In Afghanistan, Helay used to teach illiterate women in her home to help them advance. Now, she’s studying English every day, and hopes to go to college.

She said she’s most interested in the field of law.