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Pittsburgh groups help resettled Afghan youth adjust to their new lives

Some of the young people had to leave behind family or partners. Some had limited formal education while others had disrupted learning. All of them are learning to live somewhere they didn’t choose.

A participant in the Empowered Afghan Youth program looks at a picture of the group she received as an Eid gift.

 Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

A participant in the Empowered Afghan Youth program looks at a picture of the group she received as an Eid gift.

When youth from Afghanistan first gathered in March as part of a program to help them adjust to living in Pittsburgh, many of them were barely willing to speak.

Jenna Baron, the executive director of ARYSE a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit focused on immigrant and refugee youth, said it was a challenge to get participants to engage.

“I picked them up in a van and I was playing music, trying to keep the mood light. But, there was no talking and that was understandable. They were all meeting each other for the first time, some of them speak different languages, too. So there was just a lot of common ground that had yet to be found,” Baron recalled. “That has completely changed now.”

In the year since the US abandoned its 20-year war in Afghanistan, about 700 people, many of them children and youth, have resettled in Pittsburgh seeking refuge from their home country. Many are dealing with the trauma caused by the war and displacement.

Some of the young people had to leave behind family or partners. Some had limited formal education while others had disrupted learning. All of them are learning to live somewhere they didn’t choose.

ARYSE is operating the Empowered Afghan Youth program with funding from the state Department of Education. The goal is to introduce the young people to resources, and to help them enjoy the city they’re living in.

“We know for many of them, they don’t want to be here,” Baron said. “They want to be home. And so whether they’re in Pittsburgh in the short or long term, at the very least, we want them to feel like they can have access to all the great things that the city has to offer.”

The nonprofit began developing the program in August as they watched the takeover of Kabul. Some of the youth in their summer program, PRYSE, had family in Afghanistan so the first concern was caring for them. With a grant from the state awarded last fall, she developed programming specifically for Afghan youth.

They used elements of ARYSE programming, which focuses on supporting English language development and supporting students’ goals around economic mobility and overall wellness.

“We kind of took various pieces, kind of like design pieces from each of our programs and created what we now call Empowered Afghan Youth that really centers relationship building, both between our program coordinator and the students and families and also between the students themselves,” Baron said.

Program coordinator Meg Booth meets with the youth in between monthly meetings to assess what they need for school and mental health, and to connect them with resources.

Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Program coordinator Meg Booth, left, speaks with Empowered Afghan Youth program participants.

“We’ve heard several stories about how students were excelling in school back home but now they’re not doing so well,” Baron said. “So we are trying to partner with the schools to figure out what’s really going on. And what’s also surfaced were mental health challenges and needs. And talking with parents to come up with solutions for supporting their children and doing so in partnership with other agencies.”

The students are also learning their way around Pittsburgh, thanks to tours of city government and the University of Pittsburgh. Recently, they got library cards at the Carnegie branch in Squirrel Hill.

Some students had already been visiting the library, including Roman, an 18-year-old refugee living in Pittsburgh with his sister and cousin. (His family is still in Afghanistan and while he is 18, we are only using his first name as he’s in a vulnerable position.)

He’s focused on improving his English and has his heart set on attending medical school.

“I want to be a doctor because I can help in the future,” he said.

He loves soccer and math, and while he wants the rest of his family to join him in the States, he’s already feeling hopeful about his future.

An interpreter for the group, Rouzbeh Shure, has watched the transformation as students have become more comfortable. He is fluent in Dari, the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, and has interpreted for Dari speakers at a few of the meetups.

Shure too is from Kabul and arrived in the US with his wife and children in 2017. The first time he met the students, he said they were quiet and reserved. But as the students have forged friendships, the challenge for program leaders is to get them to be quiet — a problem they’re happy to deal with.

“Now I see their smiles and the way they are interacting is completely different than the first time I saw them,” Shure said. “I was crying one day when I [saw] the difference … I think this program is helping them a lot.”

Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Participants in the Empowered Afghan Youth program.

Baron is also encouraged by the transformation. At the end of their recent sessions, its been hard to get students to leave because they’re having side conversations, giving handshakes and hugs.

“That to us is what success looks like: students feeling like this is a space for them where they can be themselves, where they can have fun,” Baron said. “Where they don’t have significant demands being being placed on them. And we’re seeing that when you hold a space for that, when students are given the opportunity to have fun and connect with each other that comfort becomes really evident, and it opens up opportunities for other things too.”

But broader success, Baron says, requires agencies prioritizing the needs of immigrants and refugees. That would include everything from prioritizing spending on interpretation and translation services to conversations with families about their needs. She said historically, the needs of the youth that ARYSE works with have been a second thought — and that schools and agencies must work to prioritize them.

“The whole system will benefit if it’s more accommodating to the needs of English learners and youth with immigrant and refugee backgrounds,” she said.

Jewish Family and Community Services also received state grant funding from the state Department of Education to develop programming. They are focusing on elementary and middle school children and their families. Ivonne Smith-Tapia, JFCS director of refugee and immigrant services

They run an after-school program providing homework support, English development, and social and emotional skills. They’ve also developed a support group for parents to help them gain tools they need to help their kids succeed in school.

“One thing we have seen is that parents supported their kids based on their expectations in their home country. When they move here, the applications are different, the system is different,” Smith-Tapia said. “So we need to guide them into this. These are the meetings that you have to go to or this is how you communicate with teachers.”

One of JFCS’ goals is to help children and families feel safe and involved in their community. They’ve also introduced them to libraries and are planning fun outings for the children.

“Many families when they arrive here, they’re not thinking of taking their kids to do fun activities because they’re in survival mode,” Smith-Tapia said. “So we are here to show them fun things that you can get access to that are not too expensive.”

ARYSE is also focused on joy for the high school students it works with.

Soon the youth from Afghanistan will join other immigrant and refugee youth living in Pittsburgh during summer camp called PRYSE. The organization has some additional funding to hire an English as a Second Language teacher. Afghan youth like Roman, meanwhile, have somewhat more immediate goals. Roman, for own, hopes to spend his summer improving his English … and playing a lot of soccer.


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