By Michael Calhoun
Though many would be surprised to hear it, Pittsburgh is actually home to scores of refugee populations. Pittsburgh has settled about 4000 refugees from 2003-2015, from places as varied as Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Somalia, Iraq, and Sudan. Some populations, like the Bhutanese immigrants, have seen resounding success integrating themselves into American and Pittsburgh communities, with many of the population getting educated and purchasing homes in Allegheny County, as noted in the City Paper article “A number of Somali Bantu refugees have resettled in Pittsburgh, but how are they adjusting?” Unfortunately, with the Somali-Bantu population, that hasn’t been the case. Starting with the original process of immigration in the 90’s, the Somali-Bantu refugee community has been subject to a long process of continued poverty and isolation from the larger Pittsburgh community.
The Somali-Bantu community has been at the intersection of several external and internal forces, leading to a process of physical and societal isolation. A report by Ervin Dyer notes that the Somali-Bantu community was subjected to the same racially-motivated societal poverty cycle that afflicted other Black residents of inner-city neighborhoods. For instance, the settling of most of the population in the neighborhood of Northview Heights has been the source of quite a few problems. The neighborhood has a high rate of concentrated poverty, with a substantial amount of the households making less than $10,000 annually, leading to an image of elevated crime rates and drug trafficking. Not only does this associate the Somali-Bantu community with the stigma of Northview Heights, it puts them in direct contact with the issues the neighborhood faces.
There is only one bus that goes through Northview Heights to downtown Pittsburgh, restricting their access to outside resources or simple contact with the outside world. Additionally, Northview Heights is noted for their lack of institutions that contribute to a self-sustaining community, like banks, grocery stores, notaries, religious buildings, and schools. And even within Northview Heights, the Somali-Bantu community has faced discrimination from the residents, especially with Trump’s rhetoric surrounding refugees and Islam. A Somali-Bantu cab driver was recently beaten to death by four assailants, and while the police say there is no evidence of his nationality influencing the crime, the community is still cautious.
There have been other incidents in Northview Heights, like bricks or rocks being thrown at the doors of known Somali-Bantu residents, that fuel the increased vigilance towards outsiders. However, in light of the recent statements made by Trump there has also been an outflowing of support for immigrant and refugee communities by people who are in direct contact with these communities, like service organizations or neighbors. A campaign to provide funds for the family of the deceased cab driver raised $13,500 while the goal was only $10,000, and earlier in the year the Islamic center hosted a march for the refugees in protest of the travel ban.
On a larger scale, the city has started to address immigrant and refugee issues through public forums and panels. On June 30 there was a public hearing on religious and ethnic intimidation in Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations just announced listening sessions on unfair treatment and discrimination when receiving city services. Further, on May 14 the Somali-Bantu Community Association of Pittsburgh held a town hall meeting addressing “Issues Affecting the Community”, “Outside Interest Groups”, and “Standing For Your Rights and Knowing the Right Help.” These forums are good places for discussion and deliberation, but the true mark of progress is in actions and not words. For the Somali-Bantu community to be wrenched out of an intergenerational cycle of poverty, drastic measures will need to be taken to plan strategies for the community, and to put them into practice.