How Pittsburghers can help Afghan refugees arriving in the community | Pittsburgh City Paper

How Pittsburghers can help Afghan refugees arriving in the community

click to enlarge How Pittsburghers can help Afghan refugees arriving in the community (2)
Photo: courtesy of Hello Neighbor
Two Afghan men smile and share food during a recent gathering of Hello Neighbor's Afghan community.
The American presence in the Afghanistan War ended on Aug. 15, after nearly 20 years. As the Taliban gained control of an increasing number of cities and provinces, evacuations of Afghan civilians and those who helped the U.S. during the war began.

Now, Afghan refugees are arriving in Pittsburgh. Organizations such as Hello Neighbor and Jewish Family and Community Services are leading the way in supporting their transition into a new community and life, and they are inviting Pittsburghers to help.

“The number one thing that we can do as Pittsburghers is to practice kindness and empathy, and think about how we would want to be treated if our lives were turned upside down if we had to flee our homes, never to return, and how we would want to be treated,” says Hello Neighbor founder and CEO Sloane Davidson.

Hello Neighbor was founded four and a half years ago, and has helped guide and support refugees as they resettle into the Pittsburgh community through programs such as family mentorship, study buddies for students, and a smart start program for expecting mothers and those with newborn children. Hello Neighbor also gives refugee women the opportunity to make supplementary money through food-based programs, and it gives refugees direct cash assistance through its Refugee Assistance Fund.

The organization is currently asking people to contribute to several Amazon and Walmart wishlists it has, where people can purchase items to support refugees with essential items such as diapers, menstrual products, and clothes.

Cody Houser, a highway construction inspector for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and his wife purchased diapers and other smaller items from Hello Neighbor’s wishlist, but they wanted to help even further.

Houser began a fundraiser via social media Aug. 29, encouraging people to donate so that Houser could buy some of the bigger items on the wishlist, such as a crib, a pack and play, and a rocker. Within 24 hours, he’d raised more than $1,000, and by Aug. 31 he’d raised a little more than $1,800.

“My wife, Ceci, and I have been blessed with good jobs, great friends, and an incredibly supportive family. We currently have a 2-year-old daughter and are expecting baby number two at the beginning of next year, and we couldn't imagine trying to do all of this by ourselves, in a new city, in a new country, and with next to nothing to our names,” Houser says. “I always liked the saying, ‘If I am more fortunate than others I need to build a longer table not a taller fence.’”

JFCS’s Refugee and Immigrant Services program also supports refugees through assistance finding housing and work, as well as connecting them to services. They have programs for in-home, after school, and cultural orientation mentors, and they also host family events and provide appointment partners to help refugees travel to and from appointments.

JFCS has already welcomed three Afghan families to Pittsburgh and is preparing for more to arrive, and they’re working with Acculturation for Justice, Access, and Peace Outreach (AJAPO) and 10 other organizations to address growing immediate and long-term needs. Pittsburgh is one of 19 cities chosen across America as welcoming communities to house Afghan families arriving due to the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

JFCS also has an active fundraiser that covers expenses for living and essential expenses, and people can also make in-kind donations of items such as school and home supplies, toiletries, and more.

“Refugee resettlement is a community process, and we believe that we must work together to ensure that these families can make Pittsburgh their home,” says JFCS Refugee and Immigrant Services director Ivonne Smith-Tapia. “JFCS is taking a community approach, working together with community organizations to meet the needs of each family.”

Both JFCS and Hello Neighbor emphasize that refugee resettlement takes time, and many of the Afghans who will arrive are not yet here. Davidson believes the most important thing to remember is that many Afghan refugees will not arrive today or tomorrow, but rather months or years from now. In the meantime, and once more refugees arrive, people can donate to fundraisers, purchase items on wishlists, and sign up to volunteer with Hello Neighbor, JFCS, and other organizations that help refugees.

“Supporting the plight of the refugee is something that Pittsburghers have always done, and always will do. We are a community,” Davidson says. “And Afghans are not new to Pittsburgh, they are our current neighbors, they are living amongst us now working alongside us sending their children to school here. They're our neighbors.”