Afghan refugees find a new window of opportunity in Pittsburgh | News, Sports, Jobs

Mirwais, 31, and his family arrived in Pittsburgh from a military base in New Jersey, where they were staying after fleeing the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. (Jesse Bunch/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

In a well-lit kitchen near the Hill District, Mirwais, a refugee from Afghanistan, stood among boxes of pots and pans, a pressure cooker still in its package near his feet.

“I need one thing,” Mirwais said — his last name is withheld — to his case manager dropping off supplies. “For the bread. Each time, it is like $20 for the bread.”

Naan bread is expensive in American supermarkets, Mirwais has learned, so his wife will make homemade bolani — an Afghan stuffed flatbread — in a special pan.

Ten days prior, the couple and their children arrived in Pittsburgh from a military base in New Jersey, having fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took hold of the country. They’re just some of 76,000 being resettled in the United States after Kabul, the country’s capital, fell to the extremist group in August 2021.

Mirwais and his family are now piecing together a new life here, though cookware is just one of many needs. With the help of Bethany Christian Services, a group relocating Afghans in the region, his family is building the basics — enrolling in schools, seeking employment and navigating American life after being forced to leave everything behind.

“Happy?” Mirwais asked his son, Ibrahim, who stood at his leg. “Happy,” the child replied, smiling up with wide eyes.

Ibrahim is being enrolled in elementary school, according to Caley Donovan, Bethany Christian Services’ supervisor of refugee resettlement in Pittsburgh. As a policy, minors must begin school within 30 days of resettlement.

“I want my son to go to school, and in the future, is a doctor, engineer,” said Mirwais, who was a car mechanic in Kabul.

In the beginning days of their resettlement, Mirwais is focused on enrolling his two older sons in school while his wife takes care of their youngest. After that, he’ll look for a job of his own as a mechanic.

Under Operation Allies Welcome, an Afghan resettlement initiative rolled out by the Biden administration in August, Mirwais’ family has two years of humanitarian parole while in the United States. Reserved for emergency scenarios, the parole period gives refugees time to apply for an immigrant visa with the government that would begin their path to citizenship.

The parole comes with some requirements, including health screenings and vaccinations. Upon arriving at U.S. military bases, including the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County, N.J., where Mirwais’ family stayed, vaccinations and testing for COVID-19 are required for Afghan refugees. Some exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Mirwais believes his children will have more opportunities in Pittsburgh than in Kabul, where the Taliban quickly rose to power after the United States military left in mid-August, ending 20 years of occupation.

“It’s beautiful,” Mirwais said of Kabul. “Now everything is finished.”

In the wake of the U.S. exit, Mirwais described Kabul as a place where many are unemployed and inflation is on the rise. The price of everything has doubled, he said, with bread that was once $1 now costing $2.

Meanwhile, violence has increased. The week the Taliban rose to power, Mirwais said three people were killed near his family’s home. For days, he didn’t leave the house, and at the request of his parents, he booked a flight for his family.

Back in the kitchen, Ms. Donovan was showing Mirwais how to use a Brita water filter. Out loud she ran down a list of supplies she had dropped off — pots, pans, silverware, a tea kettle, a cutting board, pillows, blankets, cleaning supplies.

At the door stood Roman, Mirwais’ brother-in-law who lives with the family. Wearing a maroon shirt with a soccer ball on it, Roman, a teenager, said he was a defensive player back in Kabul.

And like many teens, he’s more than eager to get his driver’s permit.

On his cellphone, Roman pulled up the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles’ permit practice test. The app showed a photo of a thick black arrow bending sharply with a red slash through it. Unsure, he handed the phone to Mirwais, who is also studying for the test.

“I know this signal,” Mirwais said, clicking the “U-Turn” answer. “My job is mechanic for the car, I know this.”

Later, Mirwais and his children gathered in a room, soon to become a living room, with carpeted floors and a walled-off fireplace. Right now, a bright blue sofa is the only piece of furniture there.

“In Afghanistan, for 20 years, it is good,” Mirwais said while sitting on the floor, describing life before the takeover.

“Everybody’s with the school, making their job, making something or building,” he continued.

But now, Mirwais said, women and girls have been pulled out of school. Earlier, he seemed impressed at how Ms. Donovan was able to work in America.

“Here, everyone is level — woman to men, it’s level,” Mirwais said. “This is good; I like this.”

Ms. Donovan’s visit to the family was just one of several in the Pittsburgh region that day. Later, she was heading to the South Side to take a newly arrived family to doctors’ appointments.

With Bethany Christian Services, Ms. Donovan said she’s assisting 70 other refugees, including 10 families and one couple with nine children.

Since 2015, the agency has resettled 117 Afghans across Pennsylvania, though that’s not counting new refugees arriving monthly.

In Pittsburgh, BCS is joined by several other agencies resettling Afghans in the region. Last fall, Jewish Family and Community Services, a Squirrel Hill-based group, said they expect to resettle at least 250 individuals. HelloNeighbor, a Pittsburgh nonprofit, told the Post-Gazette it would resettle 150 refugees from Afghanistan as well, along with individuals from other countries experiencing instability.

Mirwais’ family has it lucky, according to Ms. Donovan, with multiple adults who can work and afford to pay rent. In some larger families, only one adult brings in an income.

Not all refugees have secured housing as Mirwais has, and Ms. Donovan said BCS is paying for Airbnbs to house some newer arrivals temporarily.

“The first couple days are always going to be the most intense,” Ms. Donovan said, “because you have to make sure people are safe. Then after that, it’s more than just safety, it’s making sure that they know we’re happy to have them here, and that we got their back — because for some of them, they don’t have anyone here. For a lot of these families, I’m their person.”

A rapid timeframe

Bob Sherwin, BCS’ Western Pennsylvania brand director, said over the phone that the resettlement process for Afghans has unfolded in a rapid timeframe. The agency is used to resettling refugees from all over the world, and typically has a 90-day period with new arrivals to assist them in securing jobs, schools, housing and furnishings.

The influx of Afghans following the Taliban’s takeover has changed that.

“We’re seeing arrivals, average five to seven arrivals a week,” Mr. Sherwin said. “Whereas with a traditional program, it’s not that quickly — you may have five to seven in a month.”

Many Afghans have since been resettled in the South Hills, according to Mr. Sherwin, though BCS has found housing for others in the North Hills and east side of the city. He credited help from the city of Pittsburgh, which provided the agency with a list of 150 landlords who are friendly to housing refugees on a permanent basis.

The U.S. government has provided funding to help the process along, including a $6.3 billion spending bill passed in September that includes $7.3 million for family and children’s programs and $21.5 million for medical support, screening and public health activities for Afghan arrivals.

As Ms. Donovan began to leave for her next appointment, Mirwais expressed gratitude for her and BCS, saying he’d return their kindness once his family’s life here is more established.

Throughout the afternoon, he also talked excitedly about visiting his cousin who relocated to Virginia from Afghanistan 10 years ago.

“From now, this is my country, because I live here,” Mirwais said, his children sitting beside him. “If I live here, I find something from here — this is my country. It should be that I do something for this country.”

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