“The first thing we say is, ‘Welcome home,’” says Tiffany Landis, director of family services for the newly-launched Pittsburgh branch of No One Left Behind. “That’s when the real work begins.”
No One Left Behind is a national nonprofit that connects Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders with housing, transportation and legal services. Since 2009, the United States has provided Afghan and Iraqi combat interpreters with SIVs in return for serving alongside American troops.
Now, thanks to the nonprofit’s efforts, these interpreters and their families are increasingly making new lives in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a key city at the moment. We’re in a great place right now,” says Matthew Landis, who is Tiffany’s husband, and serves as director. “We have a lot of jobs coming in, and in many ways, Pittsburgh represents all the opportunity of America.”
Since 2013, No One Left Behind has been helping America’s wartime allies navigate the complexities of resettlement, from finding and furnishing a house, to getting a driver’s license and finding employment, to registering their children for school and sports. Because cultural differences and language barriers can compound an immigrant family’s difficulties, Matthew says, the mission of No One Left Behind is “To be the people that anyone would need when they move to a new city: someone to point the way.”
Matthew, Tiffany and a crew of volunteers act as “first friends” for newcomers, greeting them at the airport with American flags.
Interpreters and their families arrive with what the average family would take on a one-week vacation, she says. “They each get one large bag and one carry-on, and kids under two years old don’t even get that. So as you can imagine, there’s a lot of need once they get here.”
No One Left Behind aims to meet those needs by stocking houses with donated food and furniture, providing information about bus routes and English classes, and helping families acclimate to American culture. Though there are plenty of difficulties, “It’s important to emphasize that these guys are the cream of the crop of Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Matthew. “The families we’re bringing are incredibly talented.”
So far, he says, they’ve found a lot to love about Pittsburgh: reading at the Carnegie Library in Oakland, holding picnics in the parks, and learning to play baseball. “I delight in that, because they immediately feel that much more like Americans,” he says. “We had a birthday party for one of their little girls at Schenley Plaza, and the kids are thrilled to have a space where they can run around and just be free.”
But what about the inevitable criticism — those who say we should focus on taking care of our own? Matthew, an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq, doesn’t hesitate. “These guys are our own. They faced the same dangers. They carried the same rifles. They carried our troops to safety in the middle of firefights. I say this unequivocally: They are U.S. veterans. The only difference between them and me is that they were born there and I was born here.”
“Every family we bring in requires at least four volunteers, and the national organization hopes to eventually bring a family a week to Pittsburgh,” says Matthew. “Of course, that means that we’re going to have to continue building our volunteer base and our financial capacity. We started with a seed grant from The Heinz Endowments, but after that, we’ll be entirely self-sufficient — all of our money will come from fundraising and donations.”
It’s a lot of work, he concedes. But he also knows it’s worth it — interpreters and their families face immense danger in their home countries. “These men are heroes,” he says. “They saved American lives time after time. Now we’re trying to do the same for them.”