Skip to main content

North Hills Monthly

Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach Helps Refugees Find a Place in Pittsburgh

Nov 30, 2018 12:41PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

AJAPO's year-end celebration in Washington, D.C.

The Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach (AJAPO) is a resettlement agency established in 2001 to help refugees from African nations settle in Pittsburgh, and has since grown to help refugees from all over the world. We spoke with Yinka Aganga-Williams, Ph.D., the nonprofit’s cofounder and executive director, about the ways in which AJAPO helps newcomers to Pittsburgh make it home.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): Tell me a little bit about your background and how you became involved in AJAPO.

Yinka Aganga-Williams (Aganga-Williams): I had the opportunity to be educated in many countries of the world up to the Ph.D. level. I served as a public servant with the federal government of Nigeria as a senior official for 10 years, then internationally as a senior diplomat with the British Commonwealth Secretariat working on youth and women’s policies with 18 African countries and the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Mauritius and Seychelles. At the end of my tour of duty with the British Commonwealth, I came to visit my three kids who were studying at universities around Pittsburgh, when a priest of the Catholic Church, Rev. Fr. Carmen D’Amico, alerted me to the needs of refugees that were being resettled by Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh.  

These were young men from the Sudan who had left their parents at around ages 3 and 4, and required nurturing for resettlement in the United States at their older ages of 18 years plus. I partnered with Fr. D’Amico and St. Benedict the Moor Parish—a predominantly African-American Catholic parish in Pittsburgh—to co-found AJAPO to specifically meet the needs of African refugees being resettled in Pittsburgh. AJAPO then expanded to become a resettlement agency for refugees from all over the world.

NHM: What is its mission?

Aganga-Williams: Our mission is to provide a continuum of care to empower refugees and immigrants, hence our five programs that serve in many spheres of life: Refugee Resettlement, Employment, Youth Development, Immigration, and Services Coordination/Case Management.

NHM: Do you have any statistics about how many refugees we have here in Pittsburgh and/or how many come here each year?  

Aganga-Williams: Over the past five years, we have received more than 3,000 refugees, and these do not include those who have moved to the Pittsburgh area from other states where they were originally resettled. They come due to family ties in Pittsburgh.

NHM: What are some things that you do to help refugees resettle here?

Aganga-Williams: Refugees come from different backgrounds. There are those who have been displaced for only a few years, and there are those who have lived in refugee camps as multiple generations and for several years. There are specific guidelines provided by the Department of State for the resettlement of refugees, and in addition to those, resettlement agencies are allowed to act according to the needs of the refugees. For example, agencies are required to advocate, but there will be no specifics as to what to do when a refugee child is bullied in school. Agencies must figure out what to do under certain circumstances.

When refugees arrive, we find them homes and work with welcoming and kind American landlords who are willing to lease out to the refugee population, who have no credit to their names. We enroll their kids in school within 30 days and the adults in English as a Second Language classes through other providers. We take them to the clinic for health screenings to ensure their health is in good condition, but also to ensure that we as Americans are also safe from other diseases.

They are assisted with applying for required government benefits such as food stamps, Social Security cards and state ID cards.  A service plan for all members of the family, regardless of their age, is worked out with the family and pursued for self-sufficiency. They are thereafter enrolled in other refugee services as needed by each member of the family.

NHM: What are some of the types of jobs that you've been able to help refugees secure?

Aganga-Williams: At the onset for employment enrollment, refugees are assessed for the skills they brought from their countries of origin, and a resume is developed with the assistance of employment staff. Pre-employment training is provided while a job search is pursued. AJAPO employment staff work with a myriad of employers in the region who are welcoming to refugee and immigrant employees. AJAPO provides interpretation services to employers whenever needed for refugee employment purposes even after they have been hired.

NHM: Describe the immigration services that you offer—and explain your affiliation with the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Department of Justice.

Aganga-Williams: In order to practice legal immigration, nonprofits must be approved by the Department of Justice. AJAPO is approved by the DOJ to practice legal immigration services, and the agency assists refugees with various immigration services.

The refugee status is only the beginning of the legal status that refugees can have when admitted. They are expected to apply for their permanent residency after one year and citizenship after five years. Also, there are those who have family members left behind who may want to bring them in, and if those family members are eligible by immigration laws, AJAPO assists them with those applications as well as their process towards permanent residency and citizenship. 

NHM: Tell me about your Youth Development program.

Aganga-Williams: As required by government, youth are enrolled in schools within 30 days of arrival without a mandate to provide orientation to both the refugees and the mainstream American students in the schools that they attend. AJAPO has provided refugee and immigrant youths with several activities to bridge this gap, ranging from weekend activities to monthly sessions on several youth development topics. Last year, for example, we dwelled on STEAM programming, and this year we will be working with 30 youth on leadership and academic success. Our major hindrance has been finding multiple years’ funding for sustaining program continuity.

NHM: What are some myths about refugees that you’d like to debunk? 

Aganga-Williams: The myth that refugees are not educated people—not all refugees are low-educated or without education. Also that refugees come to drain our social services system—refugees are diligent workers who would rather not be on government benefits but earn an income to sustain their families. They pay income taxes and get off government assistance as quickly as they can once they start working.

There is also a myth that refugee children drain our schools—rather, they help make up the numbers to keep schools from shutting down or merging with other schools in far-away neighborhoods. Their presence provides diversity in our environment, and welcoming them enriches the cultural future of our children. Refugee children are part of our kids’ future generation, and giving them proper education today is investing in our children’s socioeconomic future.   

NHM: What are some ways that people can help?

Aganga-Williams: You can sponsor specific families by assisting with their extended rent for about three months or more as an organization, church, group or individual. You can befriend individuals or families and help them acculturate to the region. You could volunteer to help with house move-in, show new arrivals where to shop within the area, and show them how to ride public transportation to important places for needed services like hospitals, jobs, children’s schools, and more.

To learn more about AJAPO, visit www.ajapopittsburgh.org.