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Immigration: Center of Storm Relief ... and More

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Before Hurricane Katrina, Kishor Pokharna seemed unlikely to need help and unlikely to ask. His business card says he is president of "Global Diamonds, importers and wholesalers." He is also an attorney and an accountant who was running a tax business and a computer company alongside the family jewel trade. His wife had completed medical school and was in the midst of her residency at Louisiana State's University Hospital in New Orleans on Aug. 29.

But Pokharna, who emigrated first to Pittsburgh 18 years ago from Poona, India, then to New Orleans a year and a half ago, needed a whole bunch of help after Katrina blew him, his wife and his two elementary school-age children back here. His house, car, businesses and citizenship papers were all lost in the hurricane. He has since discovered he needs a kidney transplant, due to an infection that likely predates the natural disaster. But he found help for all of these problems through Pittsburgh's Welcome Center for Immigrants and Internationals, which opened, coincidentally, at the same time.

 

"When I came to this country, I came with nothing," Pokharna recalls. "I used to walk 15 miles a day because I didn't have dollar for bus." He remembers many Pittsburghers offering him a ride as he walked from Green Tree to Downtown. "I used to lie sometimes: 'I missed my bus.' Or 'There is no bus.' Didn't want money. Just give me your blessing or good wishes." He worked at first for a local accountant for free, sweeping the office floors and studying the office's volumes of tax law and computers. Eventually, he says, he was advising the accountant and his colleagues.

 

Pokharna was more than a businessman in Pittsburgh. After Richard Baumhammers went on a shooting spree in Pittsburgh's southern suburbs in 2000, Pokharna helped organize rallies in support of one of the shooting victims, a family friend and fellow Jain, Sandip Patel. Pokharna remained in Pittsburgh when his wife went to New Orleans, in order to allow his kids to continue their schooling here, reuniting his family in early 2004 only when the separation became untenable. He was back in Pittsburgh on a business trip when his Aug. 29 flight home got canceled. He hasn't been back since.

Although his address in the Uptown section of New Orleans was under less than four inches of water, according to a Web map of the New Orleans flood (http://mapper.cctechnol.com/floodmap.php), he isn't certain in what shape the hurricane left his place. After arranging for the hospital's upcoming shifts to be covered by other residents who didn't have families, Pokharna's wife drove away from New Orleans in the early hours of Aug. 30 with their kids and a couple of changes of clothing.

"Indian community, I know them," he says of his fellow immigrants in Pittsburgh. "Everybody came: 'Kishor, call me.' I never called them. I never asked them. But here, he came forward. Like a godsend person, Andy came into my life."

 

Andy Pugh is executive director of the Welcome Center, which has served 70 clients since its inception. They've come from such a wide variety of countries and backgrounds that it's impossible yet to describe the average person who uses the place. They seem to have similar needs, he allows - for employment, immigration services, health-care, schooling and English lessons. The Center is currently seeking multi-lingual volunteers.

 

The Welcome Center is currently located in the offices of the Jewish Family and Children's Service in Squirrel Hill, which has been resettling refugees and helping people get asylum for more than 65 years -- 2,000 people in last decade alone. Pugh sees the center as a source of information and a bridge to existing services in the city. Pugh also helped connect Pokhrana to an immigration lawyer to smooth the re-acquisition of new citizenship papers, which proved difficult for Pokhrana to do alone.

 

Pugh and Center President Linda Ehrenreich believe that helping immigrants thrive will help Pittsburgh thrive. "For the people who are already here in the region or looking for a move to the region," says Ehrenreich, "we are like that distant relative" who pioneered the move to the U.S. a century ago and can ease the passage today. "We want people to stay here -- and bring their friends and relatives."

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