Connection of a Lifetime

For International people, the acclamation to a new home can be a lonely road

A 7-year-old boy sent a letter written in pencil to Alan Hausman, Vice President of the Tree of Life Synagogue, after the October 27, 2018 shooting.

“The letter said, ‘when I’m sad my mom gets me a Beyblade. I know it won’t make you happy, but I hope it will make you less sad,” said Hausman at the Love Thy Neighbor event in downtown Pittsburgh in February.

Hausman’s message was a resounding echo of acceptance, the same messages offered to others present, like Hello Neighbor and Pittsburgh Region International Student Ministries (PRISM); these places are where international students, immigrants, and refugees could gain access to resources and get accustomed to living in America.

“You can make a difference” – Hausman

Fayezeh Haji Hassan, a Board Member for Hello Neighbor, was also a speaker at the event. Hello Neighbor is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to supporting recently resettled refugee families.

“It’s an organization that helps connect refugees and immigrants to American families here in Pittsburgh,” she said.

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Hello Neighbor started in January of 2017. Source: HelloNeighbor.io

The nonprofit, which began in 2017, has been an advocate for the trials of immigrants in America. After President Trump’s Executive Order 13769, otherwise known as the “Trump travel ban”, which closed off a lot of international travel to Middle Eastern countries. The organization saw an opening to connect immigrants to American families due to the inaccessibility of returning to their home countries.

Hassan, who started a girl’s school in an Afghanistan neighborhood after immigrating from Iran, had to move to Pakistan after the U.S. invasion of 2003 and eventually moved to Pittsburgh for law school. She moved to the United States because it was a safe option from her home overseas. For her, the U.S. and Pittsburgh was an eye-opening experience for what life for immigrants is really like.

She explained that Hello Neighbor is important for Pittsburgh because of the connections that could be made, especially for people coming from war-torn areas of the world.

“Don’t think or don’t assume anything about immigrants,” she added.

PRISM is another organization that is trying to showcase that for immigrants.

“At some points I felt so isolated and lonely because I don’t speak English as well as the native people,” said Rongkun Xu, a University of Pittsburgh student from China.

PRISM is an organization that centers around connecting foreign students at local universities to American culture. They are located around Carnegie Mellon and Pitt in Oakland, where they hold events for students from the universities that help them learn English and American culture.

“It’s a welcoming,” said key PRISM volunteer Ken Wagoner, “an opportunity to meet people from other countries and introduce them to other Americans and other internationals as well. It’s a place for them to practice their English speaking skills and listening skills.”

Some of the skills they learn include speech tense, community dialogue, and the practice of religious differences.

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Ken Wagoner explains the plot behind the movie Green Book before the annual PRISM Connect night. Photo by Bryan Partika.

Wagoner mainly works with students from China because that is where the majority of the students come from, but says that the organization does things specifically for different ethnic groups. However, their main focus is getting students connected to learning English and getting acclimated to the U.S.

“We take groups to Washington, D.C. and Niagara Falls and we stay with American families when we do that.  We do a lot of local one day events throughout the year, just to kind of get them out of the city and see a different part of the U.S. that they may never see,” said Wagoner. For many international students, going to the capital of a country to learn more about the culture was just a dream before PRISM.

The organization was founded by a Baptist pastor in Washington, PA in the late 1960s. Being that there are Christian roots, PRISM offers Bible study to its members.

“If they are interested, we are more than willing to sit down and talk with them and if they want to read the Bible and discuss it, we are happy to do that one-on-one or in a group,” said Wagoner.

People like Xu were not accustomed to Christianity coming from China.  He was an atheist that became so interested to learn about Christianity that he decided to Google places that offered Bible study, where he eventually found PRISM. Xu’s interest came from his previous agnostic views towards Christianity and God, but he wanted to learn more.

“I think I made a couple friends here and expanded my view. (PRISM) also helps me spiritually by teaching me the Bible,” Xu said.

Arisa Koide, a Duquesne University student from Tokyo, says it was hard for her to get adjusted to living in Pittsburgh before finding PRISM. The main struggle for her and a lot of students in the organization was meeting people coming from similar situations of wanting to gain a higher education in a different setting.

“The first thing that surprised me was that people don’t use trains; people use cars,” she said, “People are much more open here.”

Scott Boyd, the Executive Director of PRISM, has been leading the organization for 17 years. He says he is only the third director in the organization’s half-century history.

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Scott Boyd has been the Director of PRISM for 17 years. Photo by Bryan Partika.

“We were Christian workers in Slovenia for ten years prior to coming back to lead PRISM,” Boyd said of he and his team.

Over the years, the organization added English classes, weekend trips, and celebrations of various ethnic holidays.

Boyd says that they try and give students a positive experience of living in Pittsburgh, but continuing to connect them to their roots.

“Most of our staff have lived in foreign countries, so we know what it feels like to be isolated in a new culture and feel somewhat lonely,” said Boyd.

A lot of the current staff are volunteers from around the are who come and help teach English or chaperone weekend trips, like the one to Washington, D.C.

Rong Wang, a University of Pittsburgh foreign exchange student from China, enjoys the comradery she gets from attending the weekly events at PRISM. She heard about it from one of her friends when she first moved for college and decided to attend to make more friends.

“I make a lot of friends from different countries and they have different backgrounds and different characteristics,” Wang added, referring to the array of students from Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

The blending of different characteristics is one of the reasons that PRISM has been successful. For foreign students coming to the country, it can be a huge sacrifice.

Boyd says he knows a lot of situations in which the foreign exchange students are making huge sacrifices, leaving their current lives behind in Asia.

“I know a girl from Pakistan who had been married for ten days before she came here.  So she had been married ten days and was now going to be away from her husband for almost two years,” said Boyd.

“They make huge sacrifices to pursue higher education. It can be a really lonely time for them” – Boyd

Wang adds that the time change is also a challenge for her adjustment to the U.S.

“Sometimes I call my mother and she had just gone to sleep, so that is a big problem,” Wang said laughing about the 12-hour difference.

Boyd says that most students who come to the U.S. are graduate-level or higher in their pursuit of education, which means that student housing is not always an option. One of the biggest initiatives that PRISM tackles is housing security due to how difficult it is for even American students to find housing in the city.

“They have to set up a lot of apartments in Pittsburgh and a lot of these apartments are empty when they move in so we give away furniture and household items,” said Boyd.

This past year, Boyd’s team helped around 500 international students, most of them from Asian countries, obtain items for off-campus living in Oakland. They also have access to rent two student houses, one men’s and one women’s.

“It’s more of a home atmosphere,” said Wagoner, “Anywhere between five and seven people live there.”

Wagoner asks that they have a meal together at least once a week. These meals are prepared in the student houses and are usually cuisines that are from one of the resident’s home countries.

“The Bible talks about three vulnerable people: orphans, widows, and the alien, or foreigner” – Boyd

Boyd is also a pastor.

He says that people in the area have been so generous with their giving – from furniture to kitchen supplies to food. He says that students are blown away by the kindness of Pittsburgh people.

The connection between bringing international students to a place they can call home, teaching them English, and getting them accustomed to a new city’s culture is one that the people working at PRISM enjoy, which is why they continue to come back.

“It is really special when you go to another country and make friends with a national from that other country,” said Boyd.

One of the biggest issues the employees at PRISM face is teaching students English. Wagoner says that the majority of students coming to the U.S. speak English as a second language to Chinese or Hiragana, one of the main three Japanese languages.

“We don’t do a lot of work where we are speaking to a large number of people because the listening comprehension is the most difficult one,” said Wagoner.

Because of this, Wagoner likes to teach English in small groups rather than all at once.  Boyd adds that most of the students come from China, with India being second. South Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries make up the majority of the represented nationalities.

Wagoner said the language barrier between the foreign students and the languages used in the classrooms at Pitt and CMU are a difficult transition.

“You can’t reach 100 people by addressing 100 people in the room together” – Wagoner

One of the most exciting things Boyd enjoys from being involved with PRISM is the stories he hears from his students after they go back to their home countries. He says that when they do positive things for their own people, it adds to the positive impact that this type of organization can have on the world.

“We met a guy here who was a psychiatrist and he and his wife went back to Brazil where they went to help their church start a ministry for street children,” said Boyd.

The part of Brazil is extremely poor, adds Boyd. When the students involved in PRISM returned to their home, they stayed connected to the organization and even used the knowledge they learned in Pittsburgh to begin a similar organization.

Whether it be hearing about former students starting a Sunday school program in Bangkok or helping his current students enjoy their learning experience in America, it is clear that Boyd and Wagoner enjoy what they do.

Their students feel the same way.

Xu, who felt stressed coming to Pittsburgh for school from Shanghai, admits he felt isolated and lonely when he first arrived. His shyness and lack of knowledge on American culture played a role in his isolated feeling.

“After I joined PRISM, I made a couple friends and things got better” – Xu

Wagoner and Boyd add that they are always looking for continued support from community members, whether it be hosting foreign students or being involved in developing a cross-cultural relationship at their annual Connect Events.

“We are always looking for volunteers, people from the area, local churches,” said Wagoner.

“Those relationships are a blessing for both,” said Boyd of the bond between Americans and foreign students in the program.

Gisele Fetterman, wife of Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor and former Braddock mayor John Fetterman, says that local organizations are opportunities to have open conversations with different people.

Fetterman was one of the people behind the start of the Braddock Free Store, a food pantry and distributor of free material goods.

“We wanted to be 100% volunteer-ran and create something magical and fun,” she said.

Braddock is a town that is not known for its immigrants and has lost 90% of its total population since its peak in the 1920s. Fetterman, who came to U.S. as an undocumented Brazilian immigrant when she was only 7, says that the area has a lot of people who are not used to immigrants.

Fetterman said she was recently talking to a veteran who couldn’t find work in the area.  She explained how he didn’t like immigrants coming to the U.S.

“I might have been the only immigrant he’s ever met,” she said regarding the conversations that need to be had.

Like everyone else, she said,

“We are just someone who wants to be loved” – Fetterman

Organizations like PRISM and Hello Neighbor are examples of how a city can connect when not everyone feels welcomed, or in an unfortunate sense, after an act of terror like the one at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

Hausman says that the Tree of Life Congregation received hundreds of messages after the shooting in October. The messages came from many different religious and ethnic groups, local mosques, Catholic churches, and people who otherwise would never know of the connection that can be formed from people who simply live in the same city.

“Over 14,000 pieces of mail and art were sent to us,” Hausman said, “I’m here to tell you they make a big difference.”

“I know what Pittsburgh’s all about” – Hausman

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