As the Syrian civil war continues to devastate everything in its path, thousands of Syrians are fleeing one insecurity for the next, as the risks of staying overrun the perils of the journey out.
The United Nations predicts there could be up to 4.27 million Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. Some of them will soon call Pittsburgh their home.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, along with 18 other mayors from different cities across the United States, have all co-written a letter to the White House, stating, “We will welcome the Syrian families to make homes and new lives in our cities.”
In total, John Kerry said on Sept. 20 during a visit to Berlin, that the United States plans to accept 85,000 refugees in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017.
It is imperative that Pittsburgh does its part in help the Syrian refugees, simply because this is a problem that requires as much help as it can get. The refugee crisis has created an extremely dangerous and unstable Middle East. Many Syrian refugees have fled to the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. However, these countries lack the infrastructure and resources to meet the extremely high influx of refugees — and Iraq, in particular, has its own insurgent conflicts to deal with, trapping Syrian refugees who have fled there into yet another war zone.
The consequences are not isolated to the Middle East. Rather, the outcomes of instability ripple into the global economy and create national security issues — seeing that extremist groups tend to take advantage of such volatile political environments and vulnerable peoples.
This is a large reason why the United States has already devoted $4 billion in humanitarian aid since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Due to the pressures that accompany a large number of refugees, financial aid can only do so much for countries currently hosting refugees.
The United States has agreed to start taking in Syrian refugees to its own soil — to hopefully provide them with the resources and space they need to live better lives and to help exacerbate the growing costs of humanitarian aid currently needed in the Middle East itself.
Housing refugees will promote an atmosphere of inclusivity in our city. It won’t be easy — but it won’t be impossible.
The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh will be one of many to help Syrian refugees transition into Pittsburgh by providing them with resources such as a food pantry, community-donated items and support programs that will surround them with a network of supportive Pittsburghers.
A difficult challenge will be finding housing for the refugees.
“This will also be one of the biggest limiting factors in bringing more refugees to Pittsburgh,” Permveer Longia, a Pitt Pulse fellow volunteering for the Center, said in an email.
“Fortunately, there are still many houses in many neighborhoods that are still unoccupied. These houses are the remnants of a drastic population decrease that took place over the course of the 20th century in Pittsburgh, and the city only recently started to rise in its population for the first time in decades,” Longia said.
After the decline of the steel industry in Pittsburgh, many residents cleared out — leaving room in houses and apartments for the next wave of Pittsburghers to come make a living, like Syrian refugees.
The influx of refugees “will eventually be a big problem,” according to Longia, “but for the time there is certainly room for population growth.” In fact, through his “Welcoming Pittsburgh Initiative,” Mayor Peduto already hopes to increase the city’s population by 20,000 within the next 10 years.
The city will just need to make sure that said housing is affordable, as “refugee service organizations are limited in how much they can pay to house refugees on the money that is allocated to them by their funding sources,” Longia said.
The Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh is one organization that already works with helping refugees from countries like Congo and Myanmar transition to life in Pittsburgh. They help support about 500 individuals from about 120 families through helping to pay first month’s rent if needed, bringing them to social security services, Medicaid and teaching them how to get around the city.
“It can be really hard to start here,” Leslie Aizenman, the director of refugee and immigrant services at JFCS, said.
“What we really need is housing and jobs … We don’t want to take people here if there’s not affordable housing and jobs,” Aizenman said.
While their services will be essential in facilitating the transitions of refugees, nonprofits alone cannot take on this economic challenge. Pittsburgh will have to work with private investors and employers to give these refugees the same oppurtunities as other Pittsburghers.
In the city that inspired “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” we have the capabilities to accept these refugees into our communities — but this will require everyone to embrace this mindset. Business owners cannot gloss over job applications from refugees, landlords cannot overcharge them for rent and parents must teach their children how to respect others’ cultures in Pittsburghs public schools.
Furthermore, for the current Pittsburgh residents who may have security concerns regarding the coming of Syrian refugees, the city can be transparent in its screening and protective measures it will use during the transition. Making the process apparent to all residents will give them a better idea of who will be coming and will hopefully reduce any stigmas that may be associated with the refugees as well.
We are about to have new neighbors. Let’s make it a kind, comprehensive welcome.