Ibrahim Muya and his family first fled civil war in Somalia in 1992 and spent 12 years in Kenyan refugee camps, where education, food and security were poor.
Finally, when his long-awaited resettlement in America became real, he thought his troubles were over.
Instead, he landed in a new place, called Pittsburgh, where everything was foreign — the food, the language, the people — and it was very cold. His luggage was lost. He was given food, but they didn’t know how to use a stove.
His story is one of many.
No matter where they’re from — Bhutan, Syria or South Sudan — refugees who end up in Pittsburgh face a massive array of obstacles in their path, ranging from language and customs to child care and housing.
AJAPO, or Acculturation for Justice Access and Peace Outreach, helps refugees and immigrants adjust to life in Pittsburgh and become self-sufficient. For Muya and his family, that meant weeks of acculturation classes via AJAPO — and uncountable rides, meals and volunteer hours.
AJAPO recently received a Small and Mighty grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation — earmarked for smaller nonprofits doing good work.
“It’s enabled us to help young people up to the age of 24 to get their green cards,” says Dr. Yinka Aganga-Williams, executive director of AJAPO. “We thought we’d be able to help 30, but we’ve been able to help 45 each year for two years. So, that’s 90 young people who have gotten green cards.”
To live and work in the United States, getting a green card is essential.
“The government expectation is that they’ll become permanent residents,” says Aganga-Williams. “If you don’t apply, you don’t become one. It’s the first step in becoming a citizen. First, you have to become a permanent resident. That’s what a green card is.”
Adjusting to life in a foreign land is difficult. AJAPO supplies a full spectrum of services towards that goal.
“We do the job placement, how to work in America, how to retain jobs,” says Aganga-Williams. “Orientation for parents, for school. If they need housing, we can intervene with landlords, complete applications. We do immigration work, and we do some youth development.”
Getting jobs for refugees is a major part of their transition to American life.
“Many have job experiences, but the first thing they ask is ‘Where is your American experience?’” says Aganga-Williams.” They don’t have that. So we advocate with employers, that they really want jobs and are willing to learn and want to take care of their families.”
So far, they’ve found jobs for refugees at the major hospitals, some housekeeping jobs at hotels and some technical jobs with engineering firms.
“We’ve placed people in jobs with fishmongers, butchers, warehouses, textiles, the airport. Kind of all over,” says Program Administration Manager Diana James.
“The good thing about refugees is that they’re able to take on any job they find immediately, regardless of their level of education,” says Aganga-Williams. “They’re more interested in taking care of their families, rather than waiting on the government to do that.”
Getting a college degree is another big step on the path to a better life in America.
“We encourage them to go to go to the community college,” says Aganga-Williams. “They might not be college-ready, even though they’ve graduated from college (overseas). It’s less costly, it’s almost free, and then they can move on to a four-year (college) after.”
AJAPO is a nonprofit funded through the Department of State, under the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
Ibrahim Muya has worked two jobs in Pittsburgh for more than five years, and the family has a house and two cars. He has become particularly adept at editing wedding videos, and has his own website.