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“I wanted to be in a community with less Afghans because I wanted my wife to learn English and my children,” Fazly says. “I wanted them to learn a new culture.”
When Fazly, who has a background in legal and political research analysis, first arrived, he and his family lived in Oakland, and he worked for the University of Pittsburgh. Today the family lives in Squirrel Hill, and Fazly is a manager for American Transportation, which transports students.
“My impression of Pittsburgh has been positive. The community is very welcoming,” Fazly says. “One of the things I like about this city is women can do things. They can study, they can do work.”
Fazly and his family were resettled in Pittsburgh through the Northern Area Multi-service Center. Later NOLB began working with the family and he says they have been an invaluable asset since.
“They provide a lot of support. There are a lot of different organizations around Pittsburgh, but No One Left Behind is different because they know what we did in Afghanistan. They understand us. They received help from us. We feel like a family,” Fazly says. “I feel much more comfortable than before. If something happens … you have friends to help you. Anytime, it doesn’t matter when.”
NOLB provides a number of services to families like Fazly’s. Together with volunteers, they help get the new immigrant families housing and also furnish the homes. Additionally, they help the families find employment and English classes, enroll children in school, and connect them to medical services.
“We welcome them home the same way we welcome our own veterans, because they are our own veterans,” says Landis, a veteran who served from 1999-2009 as a helicopter pilot. “We greet them with a hero’s welcome.”
But perhaps most importantly, NOLB also provides each family with a mentor to serve as their “first friend.”
“If they’re trying to navigate the public-transportation system, or they need to know where to go to get a driver’s license, or they have questions about legal things, or where’s the best place to find halal food in the city, we have people who will be assigned to them,” says Landis. “What we’ve seen in other cities that have done this for a longer time is those first friends end up being friends for a long time.”
In addition to the regional services NOLB provides, the national organization also lobbies in Washington, D.C., to help bring more families to the United States. Right now, NOLB is working on a bill that would declare Iraqi and Afghan interpreters as honorary veterans.
“It’s the right thing to do,” says Cercone, an aircraft mechanic with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. “I may never, due to my job in the military, have an interpreter or meet one, but a lot of my friends, my fellow soldiers, who have had interpreters while deployed, I empathize with the experience they’ve had with their interpreters, and I share their frustration in the fact that it seems like we’re forgetting and leaving people behind.”
On average, the process of applying for a special immigrant visa takes between three and four years. As of Dec. 31, 2016, 9,562 Afghans and 248 Iraqis had pending applications. But while the lengthy process of applying for a visa has frustrated organizations like NOLB, many see it as a necessity.
“It’s an important thing. It’s tough for it to be that long,” Landis says. “That’s a long time for guys to remain in danger. But at the same time, if we bring one bad apple here, the whole program could go away, so we very badly need to ensure we’re bringing guys who need to be here.”
And NOLB’s work has faced additional hurdles in recent months due to confusion around President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which restricted immigration from several countries, including, for a time, Iraq. When the travel ban was first launched in January, a few NOLB families had their travel plans delayed.
“It’s scary. I understand the concern the families might have, not being able to speak the language and going into a country where it appears, because of the national rhetoric, that it’s not going to be welcoming to people of their appearance,” Cercone says. “But we want to let them know there are people who are here to help them, who are here to build relationships with them.”
But despite the controversy surrounding the ban, Cercone says he doesn’t anticipate any problems when the Pittsburgh NOLB welcomes its first official family this week on Sept. 13.
“It hasn’t been as challenging as I first thought, but it has been something to bear in mind,” Cercone says. “We’re ready to welcome them to the city.”