Just after 10:45 p.m. at Pittsburgh International Airport on a Tuesday night in mid-May, shining steel elevator doors opened to reveal three generations of Congolese refugees coming to join family for a new start in America. Having flown from Kenya to Amsterdam to Pennsylvania, they wore their exhaustion lightly, except for the sleeping infant swathed in a cotton sling suspended on her mother’s back.
Their waiting family members exulted. One man, a single dad who’d arrived with his children a month prior—to protect his privacy, I’ll call him K—blurred across the space to embrace his mother, brother, sister, and her family. Their small group’s chances for survival had just advanced exponentially: His mother could watch over the children, allowing K and his sister and brother-in-law to get to work to support the family.
No one was complaining. They’d escaped violence in Congo and an overcrowded refugee camp in Burundi. But money was a major concern: Those who come to the United States under the federal refugee-settlement program administered by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security receive only $1,000 per head, and they’re expected to be economically self-sufficient in very short order.
For destitute non-English speaking refugees whose worldly possessions fit in a few suitcases and duffel bags, this would be impossible without help. Fortunately for this extended family, Jewish Family and Community Services, one of three agencies involved in refugee resettlement work in Pittsburgh, was there at the airport with a Swahili interpreter, case worker, and aide who greeted them inside the terminal and shepherded them through customs. The staff escorted the new arrivals to their apartment, sparely furnished and unadorned, but where the beds were already made with clean sheets. Basic human necessities—a few groceries, toiletries, and cleaning supplies—had been supplied in preparation for their arrival. The work of getting medical checkups, school enrollments, ESL classes, and employment would begin the next day.
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