Students should help welcome refugees

By Mariam Shalaby / Columnist

How do you respond when a friend tells you her relatives were killed in a war zone?

That the church she was baptized in has been obliterated? That the paradise she once knew no longer exists?

The horror is silencing — and far too common. These situations are becoming part of everyday life for friends and family of Syrians.

“It’s beyond terrible. It’s devastating,” said Heba Mahjoub, a Syrian-American who is president of Pitt’s Muslim Student Association.

“It” is the Syrian refugee crisis, which worsens by the day.

“It’s so sad to think that this beautiful place that you once knew is now gone,” Mahjoub, a biological sciences major, said. For the people seeking safety, Pittsburgh can look almost as beautiful.

But only after we open our doors.

The city stands to benefit by resettling more refugees within its borders. Mayor Bill Peduto plans to resettle 500 Syrian refugees in our city per year, but he faces major opposition.

While no longer the top headline every day as the 2016 election draws near, initiatives protecting these people still deserve support. As Pittsburghers — and Pitt students — we need to support and encourage the rehoming efforts here.

Last September, Peduto and 17 mayors from across the country urged President Obama to accept more than the planned number of 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. They pledged to work toward resettling them in their cities.

Since the beginning of the 2011 fiscal year, the United States has admitted 2,234 Syrian refugees, according to the State Department. Since October 2014, Pennsylvania as a whole has accepted only 169, according to the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program.

That’s only about half the capacity of a typical Foundations of Biology class at Pitt.

But lack of interest from city officials hasn’t caused slow intake. Last Thursday, Peduto and about 110 others gathered at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church to attend a summit on the Syrian refugee crisis. The mayor stood firm in his plans to provide refugees with a fresh start —  and there are plenty of people who need one.

As a result of the Syrian conflict, which has ravaged the region since 2011, half of the country’s total population — more than 11 million people — have died or fled the country, according to an article by MercyCorps.

Peduto told the crowd he “couldn’t live with himself” if he didn’t help the refugees. As the grandson of Italian immigrants, the mayor has said that Pittsburgh has a history of accepting refugees, so it’s important we keep our arms open.

That’s all well and good, and as a sensitive person, that rhetoric appeals to me.

But it isn’t enough to fully persuade the opposition.

According to a November article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the mayor’s office has received an overwhelming amount of backlash over Peduto’s plans. Many worry that the mayor is focusing his attention on people whom he has no responsibility to help, while neglecting the safety and concerns of his current constituents in the process. Questions, like where refugees will be housed, persist.

His latest strategy to engage the public has been to highlight the benefits that resettlement of Syrian refugees in Pittsburgh will provide for the city as a whole.

“We have areas of the city that have lost 80 percent of its population since the 1980s,” Peduto said at the summit. “We have the opportunity to rebuild communities. To rebuild neighborhoods.”

Besides rebuilding the city’s lacking pockets, Pittsburgh’s taking in of refugees can increase diversity in the city and bring new businesses and perspective to the Pittsburgh area.

The plan and its benefits are all great in theory — community revitalization is hard to argue against. To gain footing, though, real citizens need to demonstrate that they are committed to making it a reality.

Pitt students can and should get involved in helping Syrian refugees establish themselves in Pittsburgh. Volunteering to help resettlement agencies in Pittsburgh, and donating what we can is a good start.

Mahjoub, whose group has worked with the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, said the Center is “taking clothing donations, food donations, monetary donations — anything to help get the families back on their feet.”

But to provide effective resettlement of refugees in Pittsburgh, the city must increase and improve its organizational capacity and services.

“Right now, there are three refugee resettlement agencies in Pittsburgh,” said Sarah Tolaymat, a first-year engineering student at Pitt.

Tolaymat serves on the committee to create a new refugee resettlement agency at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh on Bigelow Boulevard, right off of Pitt’s campus.

Her relatives, who fled from Syria to Turkey, have struggled to enroll in school and find work. The refugees who come to Pittsburgh shouldn’t have to face those hurdles.

“We want to be there to help give them a footing, a place to stay, help them learn English and just help them get started,” Tolaymat said. “There’s a lot to be done, and it’s very early on in the process.”

Laying a local foundation for that support is key, and students have the opportunity to directly change lives.

Last Friday, Feb. 12, Pitt students completely filled a van with donated clothing and raised $500 for Syrian refugees as part of MSA’s annual campus challenge to fast for a cause.

“Each meal only costs about 50 cents at the camp in Macedonia where the money is going,” Mahjoub said. “So we Pitt students ended up feeding about a thousand people.”

Making a long-term impact is similarly within reach. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh offers volunteer opportunities, as does the resettlement agency of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Squirrel Hill.

You don’t have to stray far from campus to lend your support.

Pitt organizations, such as FORGE — Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment — train and transport students to tutor refugee children in the Pittsburgh area.

To make the benefits of welcoming Syrian refugees clear to the general public, we need to continue our own efforts to help. Participating in events like Fast-a-Thon and volunteering our efforts at Pittsburgh refugee resettlement agencies are easy ways to get started and raise awareness.

There are plenty of ways to help, and it’s time the community starts getting behind them.

Maybe then, when we hear about the tragedies sending refugees our way, we’ll at least know that we’re doing as much as we can.

Mariam Shalaby primarily writes on social change and foreign culture for The Pitt News.

Write to her at [email protected]