Baldwin-Whitehall: A Refuge for Many Nations
Tucked in the valley neighborhood of Whitehall Place, formerly called Prospect Park, is a community within a community. Coexisting in this small part of Whitehall are families from 25 different countries.
In a small living-room area in an apartment rented by the Prospect Park Family Center, interpreter Hpa Taey Boue helped two Whitehall Place Apartments residents prepare their taxes. Zaw Myat Teik and Ei Ei Cheaw patiently answered detailed questions about work, education, health and family. After two years in the United States, Teik and Cheaw are adapting to the practicalities of life in America.
“The best experience I had in coming to America was the weather,” Teik said. “I had never seen snow before.”
But snow is just one of the many adjustments and challenges refugees like Teik and Cheaw face in their new home.
Immigrant vs. Refugee
The difference between an immigrant and a refugee may not be readily apparent to most people. An immigrant is someone who chooses to move to a new country. Teik and Cheaw, like many other refugees, came to America from a camp after fleeing their native country – in their case, Thailand.
For refugees, coming to the United States is not a preferred choice. When there is a humanitarian crisis in a country, whether it be naturally or politically caused, families are forced to flee their native land and take shelter in a country of asylum in refugee camps, usually along a border.
“There, they linger until they are either able to go home or come to a third country [like the United States],” Leslie Aizenman, Director of Refugee Services at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, said.
Every year, the President of the United States and his cabinet make a decision about how many refugees the country will be able to receive, as well as what countries they will be accepted from.
“It’s important to understand that we are an agency of the United States government,” Aizenman said. “It’s all of us [taxpaying citizens] bringing these people here. And while the goal is for them to gain employment, we are a humanitarian program.”
There are 11 national settlement agencies which allocate resources to local agencies. The two local agencies which handle settlement of all refugees in the Pittsburgh area are Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh and the aforementioned JF&CS.
“Because there are so many refugees in Baldwin-Whitehall,” Aizenman said, “that’s where they want to live. Most of them have family there.”
“[And] once they get here,” JF&CS Public Relations Associate Kelly O’Brien said, “they realize the great opportunities they have here.”
These opportunities begin with the kinds of programs and services offered at the Prospect Park Family Center, such as tax preparation provided by Just Harvest and language classes provided by the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.
However, for refugees like Cheaw, who works third-shift at a bread factory, getting to morning English classes is a struggle.
While settlement agencies are focusing their energies and resources on adult refugees, South Hills Interfaith Ministries sees the best chance for hope in refugee children.
Founded in 1968, SHIM is a service agency which serves the South Hills of Pittsburgh – predominately, the neighborhoods of Baldwin-Whitehall, Bethel Park, Keystone Oaks, Mt. Lebanon and the townships of Upper St. Clair and South Park.
“Primarily, what we provide is social services for families in immediate need,” SHIM’s Executive Director Jim Guffey said, “and then we’re looking at long-term sustainability. And certainly part of that is working for the last 13 years with the refugee population being resettled into the Baldwin-Whitehall school district area.”
Over the years, the youth work by SHIM has involved a growing partnership with the Baldwin-Whitehall school district.
“We collaborate with SHIM in many ways,” B-W Superintendent Dr. Lawrence C. Korchnak said. “And the most recent collaboration is a two-year program grant we got through them.”
“It just started Jan. 18,” Guffey said. “There’s about 56 children enrolled right now. The children are dropped off there [at The Whitehall Church] at the end of the school day from about 4:15-ish to about 6:25.”
This four-part program provides the following assistance to refugee students:
Homework Assistance – Since many refugee parents are unable to provide help with schoolwork.
Academics – Reinforcing some of the things that they are learning in school.
Enrichment – Offering different opportunities to introduce them to new things like art and/or physical activities.
Snack Time – During which SHIM staff ensure that proper parental slips are signed.
Another collaboration between SHIM and the Baldwin-Whitehall school district is the construction of a shelter on the playing field at Prospect Park.
“Through the district,” Guffey said, “we got funding from The Grable Foundation to build a shelter. There is one shade tree [at Prospect Park], and it gets a little hot in July.”
The summer months are an important time for SHIM, as it runs a six-week summer camp aimed at maintaining lessons learned throughout the school year.
“We start up right after the children get out of school,” Guffey said, “and it goes for six weeks, which usually takes us up to the end of July.
“This is done with help from the [Whitehall] Borough. We have a great relationship with Jim Leventry, the [Whitehall] Borough Manager, as well as the Prospect Park management office.”
In Baldwin-Whitehall schools, refugee students are treated just like any other kid.
“They’re just like any other student,” Korchnak said. “Only, they’re taught by English Language Learner and English as a Second Language teachers. So we have programs for anyone who comes in with refugee or immigrant status who has difficulty with a language.”
But language is not the only hurdle that refugee students have to overcome. There is also a process of cultural education.
“Some of the refugees that we get are from multiple generations of refugee camps,” Korchnak said. “So we’ve created the [educational programs] where students come in and are taught a lot about this particular culture. That is: running water, sinks, toilets ... all the types of things they would encounter in the 21st century United States, as opposed to perhaps someplace in Nepal or Berma or the Sudan.”
The hope, for both Guffey and Korchnak, is that refugee children who are able to learn and acclimate faster will be able to teach American language and culture to their parents.
Even with all of the assistance provided by settlement agencies, integration into American culture would be impossible without a sense of community. The Prospect Park Family Center, a program of SHIM, offers a place at the Whitehall Place Apartments for refugee families to build that community.
In addition to all of the educational opportunities offered at that location, staff members conduct home visits with families with children ages 0-5. There are two full-time “family development specialists,” a part-time family worker and a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer.
“We also plan more fun things like field trips, family fun nights and workshops,” PPFC Site Director Courtney Macurak said. “So ... if there’s a need for different things for people to learn.”
One example of a recent PPFC workshop was a cooking class.
“A lot of the items in our food pantry are foods these families have never cooked before,” Macurak said. “So we showed them how to cook American food.”
Macurak also builds community by offering ways for Whitehall Place residents to have ownership in the things that happen at PPFC.
“We really focus on letting the families know that this is their center,” she said. “So we have a Family Council that meets once a month.”
In spite of language barriers, that council makes decisions on many things impacting the PPFC, from the color of paint on the walls to how best to spend grant money.
From the refugee-settlement agencies to the Baldwin-Whitehall school district to the PPFC, the common message is that this humanitarian work is everyone’s job.
Contact one of these organizations to get more information on how you can get involved.