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Pittsburgher helps refugees settle in for their American dream

"They work hard to succeed. So that their children will have opportunities they never did."

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It's 11 at night, and Jaime Turek has been chain-stoking caffeine since 9 in the morning. Weary and wired, she's here, at the airport, waiting for her latest clients, a family of four refugees, persecuted Christian minorities from Burma.

All legal, all duly documented by the State Department and Homeland Security, they were spirited out, held in a Malaysian refugee camp and placed in Pittsburgh. A miniscule part of an enormous global problem, this family is but one of hundreds Turek alone will handle this year. Sadly, tragically, given the horrific and tenacious nature of global conflicts, her job is not going to end or abate any time soon.

A Pittsburgh native, Turek spent six years with the Project to End Human Trafficking before signing on as a refugee resettlement case manager at the Community Assistance and Refugee Resettlement's Northern Area Multi-Service Center. Skilled at navigating the rocky shoals of local, state and federal bureaucracies, she steers her bewildered people through the complexities of benefits, English classes, job searches, Social Security applications, medical appointments, vaccinations and so on.

"It's not that we bring these people here and throw them under the bus," Turek shakes her head. "We bring these people here and literally teach them how to take the bus."

Headquartered in an outbuilding of the former Sharpsburg United Presbyterian Church, standing in a warren of narrow streets and frame houses, the agency operates like an open secret — not even a window sign announces its presence. Signage notwithstanding, the agency's goal is to get the refugees comfortably settled within six months; permanent residency generally comes within a year, citizenship in five. While the goal is self-sufficiency, some seem never to leave Turek's care. "I never turn anyone away," she says. "I constantly help. As long as they need it."

Given the luck of the draw, Turek works largely with Burmese and Nepalis nationals fleeing their countries for political or religious reasons. Although they come from a variety of economic backgrounds, at first they tend to take restaurant and hotel jobs — busing tables, washing dishes, housekeeping and the like. Prized positions — because of regular pay and hours, as well as benefits — include Wal-Mart stock work, UPMC janitorial, FedEx package scanning. Top of the chart: Rivers Casino, where the wages are good and the benefits better.

Of course, as soon as their English chops are up, they're off to better things.

The clear goal is not for these people to become wards of the state. Instead, they came to become successful, self-sufficient, fully integrated citizens as quickly as possible.

Put another way, like virtually every immigrant group, they will make beds and wash dishes and haul trash so that their children can go to college.

"These are people who want to work," Turek says. "Who want to have a better life. They want to be part of this society and culture. So they work hard to succeed. So that their children will have opportunities they never did."

At the airport, a Burmese interpreter in tow, Turek devours a biography of all family members before they arrive. "I want to have a conversation with them," she says.

Dazed and blinking, they emerge into the airport. Carrying white IOM bags — International Organization for Migration — they're tired, happy, excited. "I'm starting my new life," the slender, 33-year-old father says. "Today is the first day."

His daughters, 2 and 4, are characteristically shy until Turek gives them a stuffed panda and a stuffed dolphin. Squealing with delight, the girls are ecstatic.

Bundled up, whisked to their new apartment in Mount Oliver, where Turek has housed other Burmese refugees, the family finds a clean, well-lighted place: two bedrooms, smoke alarms, running water. Per protocol, the first-floor apartment's been thoroughly vetted: no odors, exposed wires, hazards, security risks.

Smiling constantly, the girls run about, turning on the lights, running the water, flushing the toilets.

Tomorrow, Turek will stop by, make sure they're all right, double-check that they have a rice-cooker, tea, food. She will schedule medical visits and English classes. By week's end, she will take them to the Wood Street Station, teach them how to use public transit, take them to Social Security and Public Assistance.

But that's all for later. Now, they need to settle in. Get some sleep. Breathe free air — no fear, no resettlement camp — for the first time in a very long while.

It's 3 a.m. "Welcome to America," Turek smiles and closes the door.

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