Welcome Back: Pittsburgh immigrants find comfort in the city

By Meagan Hart / Staff Writer

Tulshi Siwakoti was born in Bhutan and spent 18 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before finally being able to come to the United States in 2009 and joining his parents in Pittsburgh in 2010.

“I lived in a very different part of the world. Everyday life was very tough. Here in America, you can have a real job, a better life,” Siwakoti, 27, said. 

He now works as a translator for the Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Pittsburgh. He speaks English, Nepali and Hindi.  

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the foreign-born percentage of the Pittsburgh population from 2008 to 2012 to be 7.1 percent. In comparison, Philadelphia’s foreign-born population is about 11.8 percent, and overall the United States has a foreign-born population census of approximately 13 percent. 

Recently, Pittsburgh has made efforts to expand the population of foreign-born residents in Pittsburgh and enrich their experience. 

Betty Cruz, non-profit and faith-based manager for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s office, is the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She said it is vital for Pittsburgh’s foreign-born population to grow and thrive and, to do that, Pittsburgh needs to become a more welcoming city for immigrants.

“We have an older population, but we need to look ahead for the economy’s sake,” Cruz said. “Immigrants can help build the city.”

Cruz said Peduto has committed to bettering Pittsburgh in terms of immigration. 

His most recent immigration program is the Welcoming Pittsburgh initiative, which is a part of Welcoming America, a national effort that focuses on promoting cooperation and friendship between native-born U.S. residents and immigrants. Peduto launched the initiative May 28.

“I have looked at a host of possibilities [for promoting cooperation and friendship], including many great ideas the prospective Advisory Council members submitted, but that will be announced as the three-year roadmap unfolds,” Cruz said of the new initiative.

Cruz said Peduto is in the process of forming an advisory council for Welcoming Pittsburgh. The council will hopefully show “what worked for other cities post-launch” of their own cities’ Welcoming America program. There were more than 100 applications for the council, with only 25 available positions.

According to Cruz, the council members will meet regularly for the first six months and focus on recommendations about policies, welcoming programs, language barriers and law enforcement.

In addition to Welcoming Pittsburgh, Peduto’s office also offers the Civic Leadership Academy, a free 10-week program started in 2010 that offers classes to residents so they can learn more about Pittsburgh government and use their knowledge to make the community more livable. To date, the academy has hosted nine classes and 172 graduates.  

Each session is held in different areas of the city. According to Cruz, this year, 30 applicants will be selected to participate in the sessions and 15 of those will be foreign-born immigrants. 

“At the meetings, we will be focusing on key subjects, such as languages and law enforcement, and it is a way to hear directly from the community about what the city needs,” Cruz said.

There are other services and programs in Pittsburgh that deal with immigration in a more hands-on way. The JF&CS of Pittsburgh, for example, has provided social services to Pittsburgh residents for more than 75 years. 

Leslie Aizenman, director of refugee services at the JF&CS, said she works on refugee resettlement before the immigrants arrive through integration into Pittsburgh. This includes helping immigrants find schooling, break language barriers and become culturally orientated.

“Our work is very hands-on. We see how Pittsburgh is treating new arrivals. It can be hard for immigrants because they may have accents, may dress differently and may act differently,” Aizenman said. “However, they’ve risked so much already just by leaving their countries that they are usually willing to risk more. And they push their kids harder.”

Aizenman’s work directly impacts incoming immigrants — she sets up housing and makes sure it’s furnished, schedules health care appointments, schooling and benefits and works to notify relatives and friends of immigrants who currently live in Pittsburgh about their arrivals. 

“We do a lot of connecting to other providers as well as partnering to building capacity and advocate on behalf of and educate about refugees in the wider community,” Aizenman said. 

Some of these providers include the Department of Public Welfare, health care providers, schools, English as a second language programs and social services.

According to Aizenman, the top refugee groups are Bukhan, Iraqi and Burmese, but Pittsburgh immigrants come from about 60 different countries.

Another program that focuses on assisting immigrants and refugees is Vibrant Pittsburgh, a nonprofit economic development organization that focuses on making Pittsburgh a more diverse and welcoming city. Vibrant Pittsburgh, founded by a board comprised of business, nonprofit and foundation leaders in 2010, collaborates with human resource departments, companies and other organizations throughout the city to help immigrants find jobs and feel at home in Pittsburgh.

“We want to get rid of the misconceptions [about the quality of living] that surround Pittsburgh and instead highlight what [Pittsburgh] has to offer,” Adriana Dobrzycka, community outreach and inclusion manager of Vibrant Pittsburgh, said. “Much research has been done to prove that the faster someone feels comfortable somewhere, the greater the chance that they will stay there.”

Emily Ferri, the welcome center and outreach assistant of Vibrant Pittsburgh, added that the organization focuses on each person individually and on a personal level.

“People come with a variety of questions about language barriers, which neighborhoods are best to raise a family, legal advice. We provide resources and help newcomers make connections and build a network of support,” Ferri said.

According to Dobrzycka, Vibrant Pittsburgh has worked with approximately 1,600 people in the past year alone, and it hopes to expand by collaborating with other organizations whose goals are similar to theirs, such as the Welcoming Pittsburgh initiative and the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA). 

For Siwakoti and other immigrants who find their way to Pittsburgh, programs such as these help them feel comfortable and be willing to make their permanent homes in the city. As soon as he arrived in Pittsburgh, Siwakoti immediately went to JF&CS, which helped him and his father find employment, enrolled his sister in school and made different doctor appointments for his mother, who was sick at the time.  

Siwakoti plans to spend the rest of his life in Pittsburgh. 

“There are more job opportunities here. I do like the community and friendly people here. Also, my parents were born and grew up in a small country named Bhutan. It has similar topography [to] Pittsburgh. They want to live in Pittsburgh for the rest of their life, too,” he said.