Welcoming Refugees in Pittsburgh

Responding to: How Religious Communities Are Responding to the Refugee Crisis

By: Anne Richard

November 12, 2018

The gunman who opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 worshippers and perpetrating the deadliest attack on Jewish people in recent U.S. history, wanted to harm those bringing “invaders that kill our people.” You should know: Jewish people are bringing Hispanic, Muslim, and other refugees to the United States…but then, so are Catholics, Episcopalians, evangelical Christians, and non-believers. The Trump administration, however, is intent on shutting down the public-private partnership that has brought 3.4 million refugees to the United States since the late 1970s.

According to news reports, the shooter was active on social media with posts that were anti-Semitic and against non-white immigrants, including Central American migrants and asylum-seekers. He allegedly focused his attention on HIAS programs that help the tiny fraction of the world’s refugees start their lives over in America.

HIAS resettles refugees in Pittsburgh through its affiliate: Jewish Family and Community Services (JF&CS). It has 16 other affiliates across the country. In addition to HIAS, the U.S. government’s program to resettle refugees involves eight other non-profit partners. Six of the nine resettlement groups are faith-based (such as the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, working through Catholic Charities in Pittsburgh), and three are secular (such as the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants, also with a Pittsburgh affiliate). Combined, their networks stretch from coast to coast. A couple of years ago, resettlement offices were located in 180 American towns and cities. 

I visited the JF&CS office in Pittsburgh in 2012. JF&CS Refugee Services Director Leslie Aizenman took me to meet staff and refugee clients and told me about the energy and talents they bring to Pittsburgh. I also met with local leaders—including then-City Council members Natalia Rudiak (whose mother was from Poland) and Bill Peduto (descended from Italian immigrants, he is today the mayor of Pittsburgh). Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who then and now resided in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where the Tree of Life Synagogue is located, shared that refugees have been part of Pittsburgh’s rejuvenation. 

But the entire network is now under attack. First came the Trump administration’s travel ban that threw a wrench in the work of the refugee resettlement pipeline—halting it one week into the Trump administration. It has been start and stop ever since as courts have overturned subsequent versions of the travel ban, up until the present, third version that a split (5-4) Supreme Court upheld last June. The decision allows President Trump to exclude many Muslim refugees from war-torn countries, even though many are the victims of terrorists. Extra layers of scrutiny were also added to the refugee vetting process, ignoring national security experts who assert the vetting is already thorough. These extra steps and bureaucratic hurdles slowed the flow of refugees to a crawl. Most recently, the administration set the lowest ceiling for refugee resettlement since the Vietnam era—30,000 refugees in fiscal year 2019. Even that number is laughable, as only 22,491 were admitted in FY 2018. Another blow is coming: a grant notification issued this past spring threatens to cut the number of non-profits involved in the program. 

It is clear that the White House wants to dismantle the program. While arguing that the most cost-effective way to help refugees is to send aid overseas, administration actions signal that it does not really care about the refugees—or the thousands of Americans who staff, volunteer with, or contribute to these nine groups and help welcome the refugees. While it is true that most refugees remain in exile in countries neighboring their own, and that aid dollars stretch further there, the U.S. resettlement program offers a new life in this country to some of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. Victims of torture, members of persecuted religious minorities, families struggling to provide care to children with rare illnesses or the wounds of war—these are some of the cases the UN refugee agency refers to the U.S. resettlement program.

In Pittsburgh, the refugees I met reflected several different nationalities: mostly Bhutanese, smaller numbers of Iraqis, a woman from Uzbekistan, Somali Bantus. Two Pakistani brothers were Christian, most of the Bhutanese refugees were Hindu, and a Jewish woman said she had been resettled from the former Soviet Union years before. They’ve been helped by Pittsburghers who are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and none of the above. Since the attack in the synagogue, Pittsburgh’s Muslim community has raised money for the victims and offered to stand guard during their services. Even as we mourn those who died in this act of terror, we should fight to preserve the American tradition of faith-based groups aiding refugees of all faiths.

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