A group of Northview Heights residents shed light on what it means to be a modern-day immigrant.
By Victoria Stevans
On Wednesday, June 21, Downtown’s Market Square buzzed with native and transplanted Pittsburghers enjoying the city’s celebration of World Refugee Day.
Attendees waded through the afternoon’s humidity, stopping at stands manned by small businesses and non-profit groups selling coffee, soaps or handmade clothes.
On a stage in a corner of the square, 11 refugees and immigrants – nine Bhutanese and two Syrian – were naturalized by Michael Horvath, the Pittsburgh District Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The crowd gathered around the stage holding Styrofoam containers of Nepalese food and munched on Venezuelan empanadas as they watched the candidates sing the National Anthem, give an oath and become US Citizens.
After the ceremony, Leslie Aizenman, Director of Refugee & Immigrant Services at Jewish Family & Children’s Services of Pittsburgh, took the stage to congratulate and welcome the new Americans.
“[This is an] end of a long journey and a beginning,” Aizenman said.
Then, Dr. Rasha Abdulmassih, a native of Damascus, Syria and one of the 11 candidates naturalized, took the stage.
Now a member of Allegheny General’s Infectious Disease Team, she detailed her experience first arriving in America to train and complete her residency at Western Michigan University.
“It’s very difficult to leave home,” Abdulmassih said. “But I’ve gotten many good opportunities [in the United States].”
The Northside was represented at the event by City of Asylum, an organization in Allegheny City Central that provides sanctuary for writers who have been forced to flee their home countries.
“We work with authors who are refugees,” said Karla Lamb, a representative at City of Asylum’s booth. “It feels great to be involved [in this event].”
However, the Northside’s immigrant community extends beyond the authors housed by City of Asylum and the groups present at Pittsburgh’s World Refugee Day.
The headquarters of United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh (USBGP), a group run by and for Somali refugees living in the city, can be found in Northview Heights, a neighborhood with a housing complex of 450 apartments.
“The space you see here, this is where we set up our board meetings and think about what is good for the community,” said Abdulkadir Chirambo, USBGP president, as he gestured to the room around him. The walls of USBGP’s main meeting place in Northview Heights are covered in sheets of paper detailing goals and action plans.
Chirambo has been volunteering with USBGP since 2015.
At nine months old, Chirambo fled his home country of Somalia and its violent civil war, with his family. They relocated to Kenya where Chirambo underwent his elementary and middle school education. In 2004, he and his family moved to the United States, settling in Erie, Pennsylvania where Chirambo attended high school. In 2008 he moved to Pittsburgh to pursue an education in criminal justice and got his associates degree from Pittsburgh Technical Institute, now Pittsburgh Technical College, a few years later.
After volunteering with USBGP for some time, Chirambo was selected to be the organization’s president.
“According to my experience interacting with the police and the city, the elders of the community chose me to become a leader,” he said.
As president, Chirambo works to help those new to America find their footing.
“The most important thing is to find them a good location, a good neighborhood, and make sure all of their paperwork is done the way they want,” Chirambo said. “[But, it also important to] give them any answers they need, [especially when dealing with] housing help, connecting with doctors, [and] good case management.”
In order to cover these important first steps, USBGP created 19 grant-funded programs, 11 of which are currently active.
Among these programs, the organization provides English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for elders, children’s programs in the evenings, transitional housing assistance, health care assistance (in which community members are provided with interpreters for phone calls and visits, so that they can understand diagnoses and other details), job placement and assistance (in which USBGP members, after helping community members to find a job, follow up with them and their supervisors to make sure communication is facilitated, while also helping some community members protect themselves from Islamophobia in the workplace), and mental health services.
The USBGP also hosts events for the surrounding Northview Heights community.
On June 25, Chirambo helped to plan a Ramadan celebration that 350 people attended.
“It was the first year that [residents] saw something like that,” Chirambo said. “Having praying here in Northview Heights, [having] the opportunity to talk with each other, gather, dance, tell stories.”
All the work that Chirambo and the USBGP have put into the community is not going unnoticed.
According to Halima Abdulkadir Hassan, a Northview Heights resident and Somali refugee who has lived in America for about 12 years, USBGP has made all the difference.
“When I arrived in Pittsburgh, I didn’t have [anything],” Hassan said, as translated by Chirambo. “When [my] kids [went] to school there was a lot of harassment.”
As an example, Hassan cited an instance between a police officer and one of her sons, who was attending Taylor Allderdice High School at the time.
“When he was waiting downtown [for the] bus to Northview Heights, something happened, and the police got their hands on him. They fought against the police, and they were arrested. He was not 18,” Hassan said.
The same day, after hearing about what happened to her son, Hassan rushed to the police station.
“He had a lot of damage on his back, I started crying inside the police [station],” Hassan said. “[I asked] what happened, and he said ‘I don’t know, I don’t care.’”
Hassan hired an attorney and went to court. A process which proved to be lonely, taxing, and fruitless. However, Hassan notes that these kinds of situations have changed with the formation of USBGP.
“At that time to community was not right, now everything is solved by the community,” Hassan said. “My kids go to school and come back safe. Anything I don’t understand, I come here [to the USBGP] and they will help me with it. Now, I understand every letter I get.”
“I also have an ESL class that I’m taking now, I have time to focus on my education,” she added. “[All of] that is what I get from the community.”
In fact, the only qualm Hassan has with USBGP is their limited hours.
“The one thing they need is funding so people can help full time,” she said. “Right now [USBGP members] are only working four or five hours at a time as volunteer[s], while also working a job.”
According to Chirambo, the USBGP is currently moving toward receiving funding, a larger meeting place, and more voluntary immigration attorneys and doctors in order to improve their services.
Northsiders and other Pittsburghers are welcome to share their time and expertise with the USBGP. However, as Chirambo noted, one of the best things people can give the organization is their understanding.
“Neighbors need [to try to] to understand us, while we all are opening our hearts to everyone, [so that we can] feel safe anytime in the city,” Chirambo said. “We need neighbors to contribute their time [and] see who’s around them, to see the challenges that we sometimes face, and maybe [then] they [can] understand our needs.”
The coordinators of World Refugee Day need to listen and understand a bit more, according to Chirambo, although having planned and executed the June event with good intentions.
“World Refugee Day […] all the time happens during Ramadan, so we don’t have a lot of people showing up [for the event],” Chirambo said. “We want to join that event. We want to join every year.”
Ramadan is an Islamic holy month recognized by Muslim’s around the globe. Among other practices, participants fast from dusk to dawn.
“I told them this already, and I’m saying it again. Its been two or three years, [and] we haven’t celebrated Refugee Day,” he noted. “We want to, but it’s the way they are setting it up.”
Despite their differences, USBGP and those that coordinated World Refugee Day are working toward similar ends: inclusion and citizenship.
Chirambo is a US Citizen and Hassan is working towards her citizenship with the help of USBGP provided tutors.
When asked if they were proud, or excited, to officially be Americans, both nodded their heads enthusiastically.
“I’m very proud of being a US Citizen,” Chirambo said. “I am very proud that I have the right to vote, because in the country where I was born, if I go back right now I’m not allowed to vote. But, a foreign country that welcomes me and tells me ‘You can vote, [your] vote counts’ [that is what I’m the proudest of].”
A similar sense of pride emanated from the 11 naturalized candidates at Pittsburgh’s World Refugee Day.
As they laughed, took pictures with friends and family, and shook the hands of congratulatory strangers after the ceremonies, one can be sure that the candidates held their own, specific points of pride in their US Citizenship closely, whether it be the right to vote, the guarantee of safety, or the relief of a permanent home and community.