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More refugees are resettling in Allegheny County than ever before, agencies say

  • Jillian Forstadt/WESA
Ukrainian refugees wait in a gymnasium Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Tijuana, Mexico. Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees are arriving daily to this Mexican border city, where they wait two to four days for U.S officials to admit them on humanitarian parole.

 Gregory Bull / AP Photo

Ukrainian refugees wait in a gymnasium Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Tijuana, Mexico. Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees are arriving daily to this Mexican border city, where they wait two to four days for U.S officials to admit them on humanitarian parole.

Refugee resettlement in the Pittsburgh area reached historic highs over the last year. Between October 2021 and October 2022, agency leaders in the region helped relocate more than 1,000 people fleeing conflict, persecution and disaster.

Nearly three-quarters of those who resettled in the region fled from Afghanistan. Approximately 76,000 Afghans were evacuated from the country after U.S. troops withdrew from the region in August 2021.

Together, the region’s four refugee resettlement agencies with federal contracts—Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh, AJAPO, Bethany Christian Services and Hello Neighbor—aided 701 Afghans as they relocated to the region from U.S. military bases last winter.

That figure, however, doesn’t include refugees coming to the U.S. through other means, like humanitarian parole. Ivonne Smith-Tapia, JFCS Director of Refugee and Immigrant Services, said the actual number of Afghan refugees resettled in Pittsburgh is likely closer to 800.

“We have never seen that many refugees coming to Allegheny County,” she said.

On top of that, at least 166 Ukrainians have been served by resettlement agencies in Pittsburgh since February. More than 2 million people have left the country, fleeing conflict with Russia.

The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services is permitting Ukrainians who have a financial sponsor to the country under special, temporary status for two years. As humanitarian parolees, however, their cases aren’t assigned to a resettlement agency to assist them, even though they are eligible to receive aid from the same organizations.

Resettlement agencies in the area say they are bolstering their outreach teams and services as part of an effort to spread the word to Ukrainians eligible for help.

“We have worked really hard to build relationships within the Ukrainian community. We have a Ukrainian staff member now,” said Sloan Davidson, Hello Neighbor’s founder and CEO. “We do some outreach to Ukrainian grocery stores, for example, and places where people are going to be.”

“I am hoping we can reach more Ukrainians because they might not know that there is support for them—both case management, in some cases funding, in some cases navigation.”

A historic influx

In a typical year, refugee resettlement agencies in Pittsburgh welcome a few migrant households each month. But with a surge in people fleeing conflict in Afghanistan and Ukraine, agency leaders in Allegheny County say 2022 was anything but typical.

“We ended up welcoming 206 of the 250 [individuals] total in January and February alone,” Davidson said. “So that was a lot of new neighbors to welcome in the winter in a very short period of time.”

Refugee agencies across the country faced the same crunch as the government moved to relocate people from U.S. military bases to more permanent homes.

This historic influx of refugees to the Pittsburgh area marks the highest resettlement levels in recent history. According to Smith-Tapia, even during the Obama administration, when the U.S. set its refugee admissions cap at roughly 80,000 a year, Allegheny County saw at most 651 people resettled in a single year.

With hundreds of arrivals in just two months, agencies resorted to placing families in hotels while waiting for housing to become available.

“Anybody who thinks about housing in Pittsburgh—or anywhere around the country—would know that you’re not going to find your biggest bunch of housing in the middle of winter,” Davidson said.

Few households, she added, had income verification documents, meaning agencies had to find landlords willing to both rent to refugees and do so at a market rate, all before the families arrive in the country.

“We can typically do this when it’s less people, when it’s one or two arrivals a month,” Davidson said.

The U.S. Department of State gives each refugee a fixed stipend to assist with costs during their first three months in the country, but Davidson said the money her clients get doesn’t go very far considering most “fled with nothing and they’re rebuilding their lives from scratch, and they have to pay a market value apartment versus any kind of low-income housing.”

Due to a winter housing shortage throughout the region, it took agencies months to find all of the people who needed housing a place to stay. But Smith-Tapia said, even now, housing remains a challenge for refugees.

JFCS still places families in hotels, sometimes for more than a month, while it searches for safe, affordable housing.

“Affordable housing is, every week, getting harder to find,” she said. “Not only housing itself, but housing that refugees are able to afford.”

Smith-Tapia said JFCS aims to put refugees in homes close to public transit routes for an easier commute to work, but many of the jobs refugees are able to secure fail to pay enough to meet their basic needs.

Agencies say finding landlords willing to rent to refugees in the first place is a challenge.

“We help them find employment, but if their employment, their jobs don’t pay enough for them to cover their expenses, it doesn’t matter how hard they work,” Smith-Tapia added. “They’re are always going to be on the border of being late in payments.”

Services for Ukrainians aren’t as uniform

Resettlement agencies expect to welcome another 600 refugees from around the world in the coming months, excluding Ukrainians fleeing the war with Russia.

Ukrainian citizens and immediate family members outside the U.S. are eligible to come and stay temporarily for two years as long as they have someone who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay.

But while refugee resettlement agencies are required to provide refugees relocated to the U.S., like those resettled from Afghanistan, with financial assistance and other services upon arrival, that’s not the case for Ukrainian parolees.

Davidson describes the services available to these migrants as more “a la carte.”

“Someone might come to us and say, ‘We just need help with a school enrollment. We just need help with a health appointment. We just need help with food stamps. We just need help with a health insurance application,’” Davidson explained. “And so we’re customizing a little bit more for Ukrainians, specifically.”

But because Ukrainians are not assigned cases with resettlement agencies, it’s up to the individual to seek their help, or for the agency to find eligible families.

JFCS alone has helped 150 Ukrainians since February, but Smith-Tapia said it’s difficult to know how many are in Pittsburgh and still in need of assistance. According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services, 10,643 Ukrainian individuals have been approved for humanitarian parolee sponsorship throughout the state as of Dec. 21.

Smith-Tapia said JFCS is working with other community organizations, service providers and doctors to spread awareness of the services available to Ukrainians and get referrals.

Many of those who have reached the agency, Smith-Tapia continued, come in need of help finding employment. Due to paperwork delays, many Ukrainian parolees remain without work.

Smith-Tapia said sometimes those who signed on to be financial sponsors aren’t able to fulfill that promise.

“Even though they are eligible to work in the U.S., without paperwork, they can’t do much,” she added.

Looking ahead

As for the coming year, Pittsburgh’s refugee resettlement agencies expect to welcome 600 people by October 2023. Smith-Tapia that includes many households that have spent years living in refugee camps in places like Somalia, The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central America.

The Biden Administration set the United States’ annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000 for the 2023 fiscal year, with Africa and the Middle East making up more than half of regional allocations.

Since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, JFCS has resettled 37 individuals, including “families that have spent over ten years in refugee camps,” Smith-Tapia said.

She said in many cases, families who have been on immigration waitlists for years have a harder time adapting to their new home.

“It’s taking longer for our clients and for us to make sure that clients learn how to do all of these new things,” Smith-Tapia explained.

The agencies are working together with libraries across the region, as well as the City of Pittsburgh, to plan classes for refugee families adjusting to their new surroundings. Cultural orientation courses for Afghan families centered around digital literacy will start this winter in Carnegie and Downtown Pittsburgh.

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