Pittsburgh’s Newest Immigrants

The region is unusual in both the number and nature of its newcomers
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Blackberry in hand, Tek Rimal counts the minutes as he rides the bus from his job at BNY Mellon to his Bellevue apartment. Like many young families, Tek and his wife Chandra tag-​team the care of their son, Anuj, with precision timing. Tek rushes home from his day shift so his wife can work a 4-​to-​midnight stint at Rivers Casino. Like many Pittsburghers, they rely on family to fill in the occasional gaps. Two of Tek’s brothers and one of Chandra’s live in their building. The extended family shop and socialize together, often taking the bus to a favorite ethnic food store.

After 19 years in a Nepali refugee camp and only one year in the United States, the 33-​year-​old native of Bhutan is a check-​processing clerk at BNY Mellon. But that’s not his only job. He cooks 20 hours a week at a neighborhood Thai restaurant and picks up translation jobs with Catholic Charities. Armed with a Pennsylvania driver’s license, he’s saving for a family car. The saga of an immigrant’s hopeful journey, hard work and readjustment to a new life in America is a Pittsburgh meme, within memory for many families and echoed by churches and fraternal halls. But in 21st century Pittsburgh, his story is highly unusual — especially compared to Pittsburgh’s benchmark regions.

Census data shows the Pittsburgh metro region dead last among 15 peers in foreign-​born population. With 73,443 foreign-​born citizens, the region has half the international population of Charlotte, N.C., which has 1 million fewer residents. Pittsburgh’s foreign-​born population is a fifth of that of Detroit and 13 percent the international population of Philadelphia, both more populous Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs).

But recent Brookings Institution analysis reveals that the region is another kind of outlier. Although only 3 percent of the region’s residents are foreign-​born, they comprise the most highly skilled immigrant group in the entire country, with a concentration of expertise in science and engineering. Like Tek, over 53 percent (30,542) hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The two distinctions suggest that Pittsburgh has completed its transition to an eds and meds economy, but has yet to find the robust growth across sectors that would pull more immigrants to the region. Many of Pittsburgh’s peer regions face the same dilemma. The Brookings report noted the “very high concentration of high-​skilled immigrants in older industrial metro areas in the Midwest and Northeast such as Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Syracuse.” The ratio of highly skilled immigrants for Detroit and Milwaukee, other benchmark regions, are equally strong.

A recent Fiscal Policy Institute study of the issue correlates the two phenomena. “It’s not so much that metro Pittsburgh has a very large number of high-​skilled immigrants as that immigration overall is comparatively low,” concluded report author David Dyssegaard Kallick. “In a booming metro area, both higher– and lower-​skilled immigrants will be part of the economic picture.”

Viewed through the lens of long-​term economic growth, Pittsburgh’s blue-​chip immigrants are an unquestioned asset. But its future strengths may not rely solely on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) researchers, high-​tech entrepreneurs and medical experts, but on the families now struggling to achieve a foothold in the region. The Brookings Institution report, entitled “The Geography of Immigrant Skills,” notes that nationally, many highly educated immigrants like Tek are underemployed.

As the region attempts to implement a strategy to open its doors to newcomers, it also faces the challenge of creating an infrastructure that eases their entry.

A new effort by Vibrant Pittsburgh, founded in 2010 to promote diversity, attempts to find the common needs of stem-​cell researchers and indigent refugees. The organization’s nascent Welcome Center envisions a portal for all newcomers.

Melanie Harrington, Vibrant Pittsburgh’s director, ticks off the common needs: “There are similar issues,” she said. “Employment, trailing partner connections, sitters and schools, housing, translation and interpretation skills for those with limited English.” She sees the Welcome Center as a means of linking new arrivals with existing services.

Most newcomers rely on word of mouth as they orient to a new city, and Tek Rimal is no exception. Established Bhutanese friends offered advice and connections, including Rimal’s new job at BNY Mellon. Although arriving only in the past few years, these immigrant families are finding Pittsburgh to be affordable, safe and welcoming. A second wave of immigrants is moving to the region from other arrival points in the U.S., boosting their numbers to an estimated 2,500 by early 2012. “The reason is simple,” Tek said. “There are lots of jobs here,” he explained, citing the region’s stable economy. In the debate on which immigrants can ultimately benefit the region, an unusual question arises: Can the Bhutanese save Pittsburgh?

Although their numbers are relatively small, refugees have helped Pittsburgh’s foreign-​born population increase by 18.5 percent since 2000. (The national growth rate was 26.5 percent.) An Allegheny Conference analysis of the decade reported that the Pittsburgh MSA outpaced the nation in growth among people born in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere in North America.

While Latino immigration increased dramatically, Hispanics still represent only 1.3 percent of the metro population. The Asian influx is considerably larger. In 2010, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reported that the number of Asian immigrants in the metro area grew by 54 percent, to 33,050, over the decade, surpassing Europe.

In 2000, Italy accounted for the largest number of foreign-​born residents — 7,191 or 12.7 percent of the total,” reported the Allegheny Conference. “By 2010, Italy had fallen to third place, trailing India (10,915 or 10.2 percent) and China (7,897 or 7.1 percent).”

Growth in the number of Asian immigrants is a well-​documented national trend. In a report for the Brookings Institution titled “Immigrants in 2010 Metropolitan America: A Decade of Change,” authors Jill Wilson and Audrey Singer noted that over 3 million Asian-​born immigrants comprised over a third of the total increase in the foreign-​born population. By 2010, slow-​growth Rust belt cities saw the overlapping effects. New migrants were not only more likely to be Asian, but more likely to be well-​educated.

In 2010, 27 percent of immigrants had a bachelor’s degree or higher, whereas 24 percent did in 2000,” Wilson and Singer wrote.

Pittsburgh, and particularly its major research universities, have attracted a disproportionate share of those highly skilled internationals. Over 9,000 foreign students are enrolled in western Pennsylvania institutions. Global Pittsburgh estimates that two-​thirds attend Carnegie Mellon University (3,853) and the University of Pittsburgh (2,607). The two universities also pull international faculty. At CMU, 30 percent (423 of 1,385) of faculty are foreign-​born or permanent U.S. residents. At Pitt, 21 percent of faculty, research and professional staff are foreign-​born. University faculty and researchers are generally exempt from the caps on temporary H-​1B visas. Each year, an additional 20,000 international graduates of U.S. institutions receive those visas for “specialty occupations.” The liberal policies have opened doors for roughly 300,000 internationals and are the major reason that the U.S. has seen the recent influx of highly skilled immigrants.

Once internationals arrive as students, they often stay on to found new companies. According to the Kaufmann Foundation, 53 percent of the immigrant founders of U.S.-based technology and engineering companies completed their highest degrees in U.S. universities. That potential for new jobs has galvanized all of Pittsburgh’s benchmark peers to organize international marketing efforts, from Boston World to Global Detroit to Global Pittsburgh.

The challenge is that we’re not the only region that’s attractive,” said Vibrant Pittsburgh’s Melanie Harrington. “We must continue to promote the fact that we are here. We want to speed up the trend.”

City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, a daughter of a Polish immigrant, doesn’t want the elite to be the sole focus of Pittsburgh’s efforts to increase diversity.

We see a lot of focus on highly skilled immigrants,” Rudiak said. “That’s a great thing. But lots of refugees settled here and also need our support. We might have the next high-​tech entrepreneur in this group, but unless we provide English language services and connections to larger resources, we may not see that talent emerge. It would be great to find a way to connect high-​skilled entrepreneurs and organizations with refugees — and the same with the Hispanic community.”

Several Pittsburgh nonprofits are grappling with the disparate needs of international arrivals. For professionals with multiple degrees, a job for a trailing spouse or a connection to the high-​tech community cements the bond. For economic migrants, a micro-​loan can aid a new business. For refugees, social services and public education provide a foothold. Ethnic benevolent societies, an old Pittsburgh tradition, may be newly relevant. The paths of several 21st century arrivals suggest the array of tasks a welcoming effort must include.

Tek’s Story

Born in Swamitar, Bhutan, Tek Rimal’s family of nine spent 19 years in a hut roofed in plastic sheeting at a refugee camp in Nepal before arriving in Pittsburgh, 7,500 miles away. Ethnic strife in his home country has pushed over 100,000 Lhotshampa refugees west, to camps across the Himalayas in Nepal. A forced migration on a similar scale in the U.S. would displace 49 million Americans.

We first went to India,” he recalled. “We were put in a trailer and dumped at the border. Nepali [soldiers] picked us up 500 miles from our birthplace. Some people were hurt. Some were imprisoned.” The U.N. Office of Refugee Resettlement has now brought nearly 50,000 Bhutanese to the U.S. Of those, 745 have arrived in Pittsburgh since 2008. Tek followed his parents to Pittsburgh, arriving Jan. 11, 2011. As a caseworker drove him into the city, snow was falling. The western Pennsylvania hills resemble his home village in Bhutan: “our Nepal camp was on the plains.”

Pittsburgh’s three refugee resettlement agencies — Catholic Charities, Jewish Family & Children’s Services and Northern Area Multiple Service Center — provide each new arrival with $1,145 in cash and a bus pass. Families get a furnished apartment near public transit with 10 weeks’ paid rent and five days’ supply of food. Caseworkers connect them to schooling, health screenings, food stamps and other social services. Immediate employment is essential; most Bhutanese find work as hotel housekeepers or in food service.

Tek quickly found friends among the Bhutanese. A growing number are “second wave” migrants, drawn to the city in time-​honored fashion: by word of mouth. Tek speculates that those reuniting with friends and relatives have swelled Pittsburgh’s Bhutanese population to 2,500.

There are lots of jobs here,” he explained. Although resettlement agencies attempt to place families together, many, like Tek’s family, are scattered. Tek’s brothers and sisters — now living in Erie, Virginia and North Dakota — might eventually reunite here, but as he explained, “they don’t want to quit their jobs in other places yet.”

The Bhutanese wave follows the pattern of other group migrations to Pittsburgh over the past decade. Leslie Aizenman, refugee services director at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, said her agency has ushered 10,000 legal immigrants from 71 countries to the city since 2001. In the early years of the decade, African refugees predominated; dozens of Somalis and Sudanese arrived in Allegheny County. In 2005, 100 Russians arrived. Between 2006 and 2008, the Burmese and Uzbeks took the lead. And since 2008, the Bhutanese have dominated.

Refugee resettlement agencies — which contract with the State Department to bring families here — find and furnish homes, arrange for medical screenings and school enrollments, arrange employment and refer applicants to referrals for food stamps and Medicaid, Social Security and English language training. Although some refugees are illiterate in their native language, many others attend English classes while living in refugee camps.

The need for social and health services persists for many newcomers. Since 1988, the county’s Department of Human Services has convened an Immigrant and International Advisory Council. Barbara Murock, the DHS project director, said the council is now the “go-​to” group to figure out top priorities for immigrants and social service providers. Each of its committee co-​chairs is an immigrant.

We are at a tipping point,” she said of the region. “We didn’t have growth in 1980s. We’re lacking in diversity, but starting to grow. But we need more structure” to address family needs.

Safiya’s Story

Safiya Boucaud first journeyed from Trinidad and Tobago to New York City as a college student. A native English speaker, she assimilated quickly into life in Brooklyn. When she followed her husband to enroll at University of Pittsburgh Law School, she missed the diversity of the bigger city.

Pittsburgh was a little slow for me initially,” recalled Boucuad, now 30. “I missed New York terribly. I’d left my friends behind. Starting law school helped, but we had no friends outside law school.” After receiving her law degree last May, she applied for a new Vibrant Pittsburgh program that brings international professionals together to network and learn about their new city. The New Arrivals Bridge program, developed by Leadership Pittsburgh, gave her the entrée she sought.

The monthly program “brought together an interesting and diverse cross section. It was really refreshing to meet people on different paths,” said the attorney, now practicing with Sadler Law, an oil and gas title firm. Now renovating a home in the Mexican War Streets, she and her husband relish exploring their new neighborhood. “We wanted North Side because it’s diverse, and not just ethnically. There’s such a range of ages and interests. It’s a good place to settle.”

Jane’s Story

The glass door of the Smiling Banana Leaf is fogged over on a winter’s night, suggesting a busy kitchen inside the tiny Highland Park café. Owner Jane Chounaem is stirring curries and slicing bamboo, pressed into service after losing a cook. Because she generally works seven days a week, she cheerfully jumps back into the chef’s role.

Chounaem, a 33-​year-​old Thai native with a technical school degree, didn’t know how to cook before coming to the U.S. in 1999. As she learned the business while working at the restaurants of fellow expatriates in the East End, she carefully saved $30,000. When a former pizza joint vacated the corner of Bryant Street, she opened the 20-​seat eatery in 2008.

With three employees, Chounaem has managed to survive the recession, even managing to expand her café. “This size is right,” she said. “I want to expand, but not too fast.”

Chounaem’s Thai nickname, Tuk-​ta, means “baby doll.” But her drive and determination suggest the toughness that characterizes other immigrant entrepreneurs.

The Kaufmann Foundation has documented that immigrants are more likely to start businesses — from bodegas and cafes to high-​tech firms — than native-​born Americans. Start-​up capital is a problem for most. Although Chounaem financed her start-​up from savings, she laughed as she admited, “My credit card helps me a lot.”

For many other businesses, financing is a stumbling block.

Depi Phuyel, who opened Nepali Bazaar on Saw Mill Run Boulevard in 2010, recently sold the business to his brother. The business was “running well,” said the Bhutanese immigrant, and his strategy of offering van transportation to customers without cars had proved successful. Still, he concluded that the business wasn’t making enough money. He would like to open a Nepalese restaurant, but is unable to obtain a bank loan without a credit history.

Rufus Idris, the Nigerian-​born director of CEED (Christian Evangelistic Economic Development), thinks that micro-​loans can give foreign-​born business owners who lack credit a leg up. His organization administers a $600,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments and the U.S. Department of Commerce for its Skills to Wealth program, targeting immigrant and minority businesspeople. (Minnesota has a similar program, but acts as an investor.)

Recipients of the loans, from $500 to $10,000, are mostly women. International Fashion House, a Garfield textile company specializing in African designs and hospital scrubs, is among this year’s start-​ups. Other artisans sell crafts at the monthly International Market at Pittsburgh’s Public Market. And though a few open restaurants, relying on family instead of hiring employees, Idris said ethnic food businesses often struggle.

The profit margins are low, despite customer volume,” he notes. While he believes that Pittsburgh is “yearning” for more immigrant entrepreneurs, he said, “A strategy is lacking. [The region] is overly focused on Pitt and CMU.”

Idris, who came to Pittsburgh from Rhode Island in 2007, said a second wave of Nigerian immigrants from New England has found Pittsburgh an affordable place to buy property. He said that over a dozen immigrant families moved here from Rhode Island and bought abandoned homes to renovate through the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.

When you own property, that’s a lifelong tie,” he said. “You’re paying taxes.”

Affordability and safety factor nearly as high as jobs among most immigrant families’ priorities. And in the aging South Hills neighborhood of Carrick, immigrants have found both.

Alice Vaday, who’s lived on Brownsville Road for nearly three decades, first learned about her new Bhutanese neighbors in 2009. Newly elected to the Carrick Community Council, she attended a presentation by Jewish Family and Children’s Services that included Bhutanese newcomers recounting their journeys to Pittsburgh. She admited now that her first reaction to the immigrants was “Great — more people on welfare.” But after hearing the translated stories of the speakers, she was humbled and impressed.

I had tears in my eyes after hearing them. They changed my perception,” she said. “They are good people who would love to be in their home country. The things they’ve suffered — and we’re not footing the bill [for their support]. They only get a few months of assistance — then it’s God bless you, go get a job and you’re on your own.” After trying to help a Bhutanese teenager get a job, she realized that students as well as adults struggle with the language barrier.

With its designation as the Pittsburgh school district’s newest ESL (English as a Second Language) school, Carrick’s Concord Elementary has become a magnet for immigrant students. Last September, the program had 15 students; by January it enrolled 40. Some are Bhutanese siblings from the neighborhood. Others speak Spanish, Chinese or Kiswahili.

When they first come, they’re afraid to speak because they’re not perfect,” said ESL teacher Lea Thompson. “But after a few days, they catch on quickly.”

Jonathan Covel, ESL director for the Pittsburgh schools, said that 630 of the district’s 26,000 students are enrolled in ESL classes. Students who can read and write their native language and who have been exposed to English are quickly mainstreamed, he said; others may need five to 10 years of instruction to become fluent. Covel said that Nepali, spoken by the Bhutanese, is now the most common native language of ESL students, followed by Spanish and Kiswahili. The district ESL program also arranges for translators at school parent-​teacher conferences.

Over the past 15 years, refugee families resettled in Whitehall’s Prospect Park apartments have taught the Baldwin Whitehall School District about the difficulties of acculturalization. Beginning with Bosnians in the mid-​1990s, the suburban district has enrolled waves of African and Asian refugees, even creating a Welcome Center at Paynter Elementary School with toy versions of Western appliances. The South Hills Interfaith Ministry sponsored afterschool sports and activities for the new students. Now, as families are resettled elsewhere in the region, Ginny Deasey, the district’s director of pupil services, says that newcomers tend to be second-​wave migrants with less culture shock.

There’s a big difference between immigrants and refugees,” she says. “Refugees may have no language skills. They’re coming from refugee camps that are brutal. They have incredible emotional issues and need a lot more support. The second-​wave migrants come from elsewhere in the country. I’m amazed at their resilience and tenacity to find their way here — there’s a lot to be said for the human spirit.” A century ago, Pittsburgh’s European migrants founded churches and benevolent societies to serve their communities. The facades of their enduring old buildings are a reminder that ethnic groups find leadership and strength from within. Proliferating groups like ANKUR, the Indian Graduate Student Association at Pitt, offer a common identity to minority cultures.

When you come as a student, that’s how you learn the culture here,” said Shailesh Bokil. A shareholder and director of recruiting for CEI, a South Hills IT firm, he has lived in Pittsburgh since 1996. He measures the growth of subcontinent immigration to Pittsburgh by the expansion of the Pittsburgh Cricket Association in which he competes; the amateur league has expanded from three to 15 clubs in the past seven years. The nonprofit Union of African Communities has attracted members from 25 nations. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce focuses on business opportunities and networking for Latinos.

Bhutanese immigrant Rimal believes that it’s time for his community to create a similar nonprofit. The Bhutanese have already formed a council of neighborhood leaders across the region and have created a mission statement for a formal nonprofit organization, tentatively called the Bhutanese Community of Pittsburgh. Through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services’ Immigrants and Internationals Initiative, the Bhutanese have met with Pitt graduate students who will guide them through a strategic plan and help them incorporate a new benevolent association. According to Barbara Murock, who steers the county project, an official organization would allow the group to rent meeting space, offer classes and cultural celebrations, or raise money to send to refugees still in Nepal. The group might also apply for charitable or government grants. The work reprises optimistic earlier chapters in Pittsburgh history, and Murock is betting on its success.

They are well organized and acculturated,” she says of the newest Pittsburghers. “They are prepared to be here.”

Christine O'Toole

Christine H. O’Toole Based in Pittsburgh, Chris contributes to newspapers and magazines around the country. She’s written two travel guidebooks to Pennsylvania and reported from twelve countries. Next up: Cambodia.

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