By: Humayoon Babur
Under a cloudless sky, dozens of immigrant families gathered at Carnegie Park in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, on June 22 to enjoy the outdoors and spend time together, looking like a big, connected family.
Hello Neighbor is a nonprofit organization that provides mentorship and friendship to support refugee and immigrant families. To mark the end of World Refugee Week, Hello Neighbor celebrated its third annual potluck to welcome and show respect to newcomers.
Feyisola Alabi, the special initiatives manager for the Office of Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in 1999, when she was 10 years old. In 2014, she moved from Georgia to Pittsburgh, where she completed an MBA and a master’s degree in sustainability from Chatham University.
In Nigeria, Alabi’s parents bought movies for her to watch, and she grew up picturing America “through the lens of a movie” — “Home Alone.”
“I remember ‘Home Alone’ … just really caught my eye when I thought about America,” she said.
Alabi’s reality was different. When she landed in Atlanta in March, the weather was a bit cold and “people weren’t really friendly.”
She said people made fun of her accent, her clothes, how she smelled and how she wore her hair.
“It was a very difficult time,” Alabi said.
But through family, community, and church, Alabi adjusted.
“I am so blessed to have come from Nigeria,” she said. “But I also feel like I’m blessed to be in America.”
She added that America is a great country where people can come together from all parts of the world and live among each other.
“Pittsburgh is a hospitable place,” she said. “There’s beauty with the different refugees that we have in this city. And it only makes sense to make sure that we’re embracing everyone.”
Alabi’s personal experiences help her recognize the difficulties faced by refugee and immigrant communities, such as overcoming a language barrier and battling stereotypes.
To successfully be a welcoming city, she encourages residents to remove preconceived notions and actually get to know the person.
Many refugee families deal with social isolation because it can be difficult to explore a new city if you are working or at home with kids.
Kara Kimicata, a senior program manager at Hello Neighbor, said connecting immigrant families with other Pittsburghers to help them get to know the area and practice their English breaks that social isolation.
The Hello Neighbor event in June included free hair cuts from Katie Soulen, who works as a hairstylist at Metamorphosis Organic Salon in Lawrenceville.
“We want these kids to have a good experience getting their hair cut for the first time in America,” she said.
Denise Quach, 54, came from Vietnam in March 1979. Quach says it was very tough for her to learn the language.
“My family moved three times,” she said. “So, I had to go through three different school districts while learning the language. It was very, very difficult.
“But because of the sacrifice that my parents made to bring me here for a better life and a brighter future, I learned to study really hard,” Quach said.