TV news shows another appalling refugee or immigration crisis, and your empathy is stirred by watching fellow humans struggle just to survive day-to-day. You donate money. You volunteer at a local relief agency. You notify friends to spread the word.
South Hills resident Wiam Younes did all that … then went one huge step further. She started a multi-service nonprofit organization that has provided vital resettlement assistance to nearly 100 refugee families attempting to build new lives in Allegheny County for six years.
In mid-2016, Younes gathered several like-minded friends and founded ANSAR of Pittsburgh, receiving full tax-exempt nonprofit status the following year. ANSAR means “supporter” in Arabic, and the group’s objective is simple: make newcomers feel welcome with personal support and resources as they get established in Pittsburgh.
A native of Amman, Jordan, Younes understands the complexities of navigating new environments and expectations. She’s lived in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia, where she received a B.A. in Education and English as a Second Language (ESL). Her master’s degree in Science Education in Technology Management came from Carnegie Mellon University; her doctorate from Robert Morris University focused on instructional management and cyber security education. She’s taught Information Security Policy and Compliance at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University and since 2017 has been an Information Training Officer at the University of Pennsylvania.
NEXTpittsburgh spoke with Younes about resettlement challenges and how Pittsburgh is living up to its reputation as a City of Good Neighbors.
NEXTpittsburgh: When an immigrant or refugee arrives in Pittsburgh, what does ANSAR do?
Wiam Younes: Initially, we meet with each family or individual to understand their immediate needs — which can be diverse and daunting — then we set a plan to meet those needs. That can start with finding affordable housing, locating furniture and household items, and matching families to healthcare services. With children, you have more specialized requirements like enrollment in public schools and other programs involving financial literacy, skill training, and college and job training applications.
NEXTpittsburgh: It’s been said that America is the land of great opportunity and endless paperwork.
Younes: It certainly seems to be! But that’s one of the reasons ANSAR operates a legal clinic with two full-time lawyers aiding newcomers in formally changing status from refugee to resident, obtaining green cards, certifying work authorization and so on. Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have a wide array of social services for newcomers, but knowing what they are and how to find them requires help.
NEXTpittsburgh: What do ANSAR clients tell you they find most challenging to deal with in Pittsburgh?
Younes: Language and mobility. Learning English is the most challenging. Secondly, acclimating to new social roles, for women especially. Suddenly their husbands are out most of the time seeking work, they’re alone with the kids but don’t have transportation to get to school or medical appointments or shopping. It’s adjusting to their new role as a homemaker in an environment where they don’t have traditional support networks. America can present very different cultural standards to newcomers, and it’s a set of standards that changes frequently. That’s why ANSAR hosts activities for children and young adults — small group cultural orientation sessions for families along with civics and citizenship classes.
NEXTpittsburgh: What were your own challenges when you came to Pittsburgh?
Younes: I started at Carnegie Mellon in August 2000, so I had an institutional connection. And I had worked with Americans overseas for several years and was familiar with American culture. Even so, I had a hard time finding people to direct me to nonprofit groups connected to the Middle Eastern community. Students didn’t know, and the administration wasn’t well-informed, either. Later on, I came to know there were many places I could turn, but there wasn’t a clear path to find them. That was an eye-opener.
NEXTpittsburgh: You were looking for a centralized office of some kind.
Younes: I saw there should be an information clearinghouse, or hub, where a newcomer can get an overview of the system and have it be responsive to their individual needs.
NEXTpittsburgh: Helping people understand their options.
Younes: We started out to see if we could help one refugee family adjust to life in the United States. Once we knew we could do that, we realized there is no limit to how many lives can be rebuilt with compassion and care.
NEXTpittsburgh: Is ANSAR focusing on new services?
Younes: More mental health programs. We’re seeing people coming from active war zones — Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria. They are displaced in many ways and carry trauma. We’re seeking funding to hire therapists for groups, artistic therapy and specialists who can help with that extra psychological burden, even if it’s not visible on the surface.
NEXTpittsburgh: For Pittsburghers reading this, what should they know about how to help newcomers?
Younes: The first thing to do is actually help. If someone cannot find their bus, you can help with the immediate situation. Direct them to the location using clear landmarks, or better yet, take them there. It doesn’t take much time.
NEXTpittsburgh: Think about if you were in another country trying to find your way.
Younes: And on a bigger economic scale, people should realize the positives newcomers bring with them. Early Pittsburgh is famous for big industry, but it was thousands of small businesses that stabilized each neighborhood and grew the city.
NEXTpittsburgh: I just saw an article citing more than a fifth of new U.S. businesses are started by immigrants.
Younes: Because many have entrepreneurial experience and are willing to take that risk. ANSAR offers classes in small business development, including help with job searches, résumé writing, management and working with unfamiliar business registration and legal systems. We just received a grant from Duquesne Light Company’s Community Impact Grants program for our program “Telling a Story with Cooking.” We collect recipes from newcomers that tell the story of where they came from and their dreams for life in America. The recipes will be published online and later in a cookbook. Then we have them visit local restaurants and learn how they got started and how to transfer their native cooking into a commercial business if they wish.
NEXTpittsburgh: And you do this while working full-time.
Younes: I need to help people as much as I’ve been helped. I know what it’s like to be in a new place and have people help you. I’m so grateful to the American government and American system. If we can find ways as individuals and groups to give newcomers a big hug and welcome, we’ll have a really special city.