Foreign influx in Allegheny County at 'tipping point'

| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

Pittsburgh and surrounding communities have reached a “tipping point” and need to plan for a rapidly rising and diverse foreign population, immigration experts tell the Tribune-Review.

“The changes we're seeing today, which we've been seeing for years now and are building, are not merely anecdotal. We've reached the tipping point,” said Barbara Murock, manager of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services' Immigrants and Internationals Initiative.

Murock said that means social welfare agencies, public service nonprofits and religious groups should expand literacy training, career counseling and health care programs for foreign families.

A county Human Services report in December found that about 58,000 people born overseas reside lawfully in the county, representing less than 5 percent of the population.

Although that's less than a third of the national average, the numbers here escalated in the past decade or so, the report shows.

Nearly half of the immigrants arrived here since 2000, paced by an influx of 6,059 war refugees and religious dissidents from 27 nations seeking sanctuary. One in 14 Pittsburgh residents was born in another country.

More are coming.

Every two to three weeks, employees from the nonprofit Northern Area Multiservice Center in Sharpsburg drive to Pittsburgh International Airport to retrieve dozens of refugees.

“These aren't undocumented immigrants,” said resettlement program director Kheir Mugwaneza, who is from Rwanda. “They're all legal, documented immigrants.”

More than half of these newcomers since 2005 are Nepali families forced into refugee camps when booted from the landlocked Asian nation of Bhutan. They have settled in an arc stretching from Carrick to Mt. Oliver, with the epicenter in the Prospect Park section of Whitehall.

Their numbers will rise through “secondary migration,” with families often settling along Brownsville Road as it meanders through Pittsburgh and into the South Hills.

Mangold Motors, once an automotive mainstay of Carrick, became Kathmandu Mini-Mart. A few blocks south, a former auto parts supplier is now the Gorkhali Store — named for a Bhutanese grape many refugees grew as farmers. Himalayan Grocery in Brentwood once was a record store.

“Those in the ‘secondary migration' were assigned initially to another region, such as Phoenix, but now they're reuniting with family members here,” said Susan Rauscher, executive director of Catholic Charities USA.

“Our biggest problem has been finding affordable and safe housing that's on public transportation lines. Many of our refugee families are large, and they want to live together. But overall, it's been a success because the Pittsburgh region is such an open and friendly place.”

Trouble-free in Brentwood

Experts told the Trib that the follow-on migration of Bhutanese to the Pittsburgh region likely will boost their numbers above 10,000 — larger in population than municipalities such as Swissvale or Dormont.

George Zboyovsky, Brentwood's borough manager, said that over the past seven years the foreign influx has been problem-free. “In Brentwood, we're open for business to everyone.”

The borough's assistant director of public works came from Russia. Across the street from his office in the borough building are the Himalayan Grocery, managed by Bhutanese refugee Bhanu Sharma, and a location where a Thai entrepreneur plans a restaurant.

“In the (refugee) camps, it was horrible,” said Sharma, 40. “You can't imagine. Many died. Malnutrition, no medication.”

According to a study by The Brookings Institution in Washington, nearly half of immigrants have undergraduate degrees. Sharma earned a graduate degree in rural development. Although educated Bhutanese immigrants often encounter language barriers or cannot swap their degrees for equivalent U.S. credentials, Sharma said he adapted well in his new trade.

“USA! U Start Again,” he said. “This is our home now. We have jobs. We're starting small businesses. This would be very difficult to do back home. We weren't treated as equals there, but here there are opportunities if we work hard.”

Tika Timsina, 44, on the housekeeping staff at Children's Hospital in Lawrence­ville, said elderly Bhutanese struggle most, “but we live in large families, so we take care of them. It's not hard when you're a family.”

Other blue-collar Bhutanese follow a path similar to migrants from a century ago, said Sam Williamson, director of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ in Western Pennsylvania. Asian refugees staff four area laundries; two Cleancare plants, plus Clarus Linen and Iron City Uniform Rental, are union shops.

“We represent hundreds of Nepalese, Bhutanese and Burmese workers in the Pittsburgh region. Just like the generations of immigrants that came before them, they joined unions, worked hard and are building a better life for their families,” Williamson said. “... These workers are no different than the Eastern European workers who came to Pittsburgh over 100 years ago to work in the steel mills. They simply want a better life for their families.”

Big dreams

Surrounded by a circle of chums outside Gorkhali Store — with nicknames such as “SK” and “Buddha” — Arjun Alaska, 22, an accounting student at Community College of Allegheny County, ticks off where they have lived: Nepal, Lancaster County, Erie, small towns across northern Ohio, then Carrick.

These Bhutanese buddies cruise around town in a flashy car — a ruby-red Mitsubishi Lancer with chrome pipes — but say their goals sometimes divided them from their peers at Beechview's Brashear High School.

Two told the Trib that they are studying to become economists, and the others chose software and mechanical engineering.

“Some people here do not treat us as they would their own kind,” Alaska said. Like his friends, he speaks fluent English with a distinct Nepali accent.

Annually, about 200 students take Brashear's English as a Second Language classes — a sliver of the nearly 30,000 residents who have trouble speaking English nationwide, according to the Census Bureau.

They include Christian Chin refugees from Burma; Burundians who survived central Africa's civil wars; Iraqis evacuated after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003; Meskhetian Turks who left Uzbekistan; Jews escaping Russian persecution; and Somali Bantus freed from slavery in the Horn of Africa.

Resettlement critics

Critics voice concern about how the U.S. refugee resettlement program has morphed over the past decade, arguing that for every success story such as Pittsburgh's Bhutanese there are others, such as Somali farmers, who struggle in 21st-century urban America.

They want the government to slash refugee quotas.

“The State Department should look at refugee resettlement in the United States as an absolute last resort, not the first. That's been my problem with the policies. They took the easy way out and sent them here,” said Mark Krikorian, who directs the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.

That might be true in some cities, but it's not for the estimated 5,000 African immigrants in Allegheny County, said Yinka Aganga-Williams, director of Pittsburgh's AJAPO (Acculturation, Justice, Access and Peace Outreach). St. Benedict the Moor Church in the Hill District started her nonprofit a decade ago to resettle Sudanese refugees.

“We have to face reality. In the U.S., we're an aging population. To a large extent, these immigrants will be taking care of us in the future. If we give these children a good education, this is an opportunity that is good for the U.S. and good for these children,” said Aganga-Williams, who is from Nigeria and earned graduate degrees from Duquesne University and Rome's Gregorian University.

An increasing number of professionals study here and apply to stay, Aganga-Williams said.

Arriving alongside them are young entrepreneurs from West Africa such as Sani Musah.

Raised in Accra, the capital of Ghana, Musah, 29, said he does not like Pittsburgh's winters, but he's excited to be part of Brookline's growing West African community.

He stocks his Daree Salam African Mart with yam flour, jute leaves, herring powder and shito, a spicy shrimp sauce favored in Accra, his hometown before his father got a U.S. work visa and moved the family to the Bronx.

One of Musah's cousins in Pittsburgh reported the city was friendly to businesses, so Musah, his wife and four children became yinzers — the last stage in a journey that took his extended Muslim family from Burkina Faso to Nigeria, then to Ghana and Brookline.

“It's a whole different experience, but growing up in Ghana made the transition easier,” he said. “... We learned how to tolerate others who are different. We learned how to integrate, and if you're an immigrant in America, it's all about how you integrate, right?”

Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or

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