Refugees

Pittsburgh marks World Refugee Day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday in Market Square with musical performances, food and services for local refugees.

Agencies resettle about 500 refugees every year in the Pittsburgh area, an upward trend from 10 years ago. Most hail from Bhutan, Burma, Somalia and Iraq.

The city has become a hub for secondary migration for refugees initially placed in other areas who move to the Steel City for family, vibrant ethnic communities or employment opportunities. About a thousand secondary migrants have moved here every year since 2011.

Jessica Nath / 90.5 WESA

Bishnu Timsina and Puspa Nepal are from Bhutan, but they spent much of their lives in refugee camps in Nepal.

This is because the Bhutanese government found those with Nepali origin a threat to political order and decided to act on that “risk” in the late 1980s.

“(The) government started putting them into jail, raping the young girls and women, beating family members,” Bishnu said. “And they were also asked to sign volunteer migration forms by the government of Bhutan and they were told that you have to leave the country.”

Dr. Richard Mollica, the director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma at Massachusetts General Hospital, has spent the last three decades working with refugees. This week, he was in Pittsburgh for a conference and sat down to speak about refugees and trauma with 90.5 WESA’s Erika Beras. This is part of the interview.

On how the work he has done has changed since the early '80s:

On Monday afternoon, a chartered bus wound its way through the steep, narrow roads of the South Hills on its way to Baldwin High School.

On board were employees of HIAS, an agency that works with the State Department in bringing refugees to the United States. HIAS works with Jewish Family and Children’s Services, one of four resettlement agencies in the Pittsburgh area.

Pittsburgh has become a hub for refugees. This week HIAS is holding its national conference here, and among the activities are visits to where refugees live, work — and go to school.

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

In 2012, more that 58,000 refugees were resettled in the United States. A couple thousand of them came to Pennsylvania. Many of these refugees come to the United States fleeing war and genocide. Many arrive healthy but develop chronic illnesses as they adopt American habits. Others feel isolated and alone – suffering that can turn toxic over time. 

At a conference held in Pittsburgh last fall, several dozen men from around the United States discussed a disturbing trend in their community: the high suicide rate and prevalence of depression among Bhutanese-Nepali refugees.

"People are looking for resources where they can go to curb this mental health issue," said Buddha Mani Dhakal, editor of the Bhutan News Service.

Icars / flickr

Refugees to the region face a number of challenges, unfamiliarity with a different language is even more complicated when trying to obtain health care.

90.5 WESA Behavioral Health Reporter Erika Beras is embarking on a month-long series on the challenges refugees face in the Pittsburgh area to obtain health care. She says her interest in the topic was sparked by the high population of refugees in Pittsburgh. 

Courtesy photo

On a Sunday morning last December, nearly a hundred people gathered in a West End church to dedicate their prayers to Claudine Mukankindi, a young woman who came to the United States as a Congolese refugee.

In December 2012, a year earlier, she died of a heart attack at age 36.

In a pew near the front was Adeline Kihonia. Dancing and chanting in worship, she had tears in her eyes.

"She was like a part of my family," Kihonia said. "When she passed away, it was like I lost a sister, a good sister."