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Advisory group suggests ways to make immigrants feel welcome in Pittsburgh

Bob Bauder
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Selamawit Endeshaw from Ethiopia recites the oath of citizenship Monday, June 1, 2015, during a naturalization ceremony in City Council Chambers, Downtown. The 29 citizenship candidates represented 18 countries.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Guillaume Tirfoin from France recites the oath of citizenship Monday, June 1, 2015, during a naturalization ceremony in City Council Chambers, Downtown. The 29 citizenship candidates represented 18 countries.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Cruz Rios, 78, from Venezuela gets a handshake and an American flag Monday, June 1, 2015, from Mayor Bill Peduto following a naturalization ceremony in City Council Chambers, Downtown. The 29 citizenship candidates represented 18 countries.

As he congratulated new U.S. citizens in Pittsburgh, Mayor Bill Peduto outlined a program Monday to help ease their culture shock.

An advisory group he empaneled suggested making the city more inviting for immigrants by setting up welcoming hubs at its senior and recreation centers, providing city employees with diversity training, and showing films based on foreign cultures in Pittsburgh parks, among other ideas.

Some of the 40 recommendations that the Welcoming Pittsburgh Advisory Council made will be implemented, but others could take years, officials said.

“This can be a game-changer in so many ways, outside of what we provide,” said Kheir Mugwaneza, an advisory council member and the resettlement program director for Sharpsburg-based Northern Area Multi-Service Center, which helps about 200 foreign refugees each year find homes in the Pittsburgh region.

When he took office in 2014, Peduto set a goal of attracting 20,000 residents to Pittsburgh during the next 10 years. He said bringing immigrants to Pittsburgh would help the city repopulate shrinking neighborhoods and provide labor for its growing economy.

Peduto and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Leon Rodríguez congratulated 28 former residents of 18 different countries on becoming Americans during a naturalization ceremony in City Council chambers.

“In you, I see elements of my own family,” said Rodríguez, whose parents immigrated from Cuba in 1961. “You and your contributions are vital to the ongoing success of America.”

The advisory council said public naturalization ceremonies are part of making immigrants feel welcome, as would park films on different cultures that the city will offer this summer.

Longer-term plans include citizenship and English classes at recreation and senior centers, offering important city documents in multiple languages, and offering “municipal identification cards” to individuals who have no driver’s license or other identification. Pennsylvania issues such cards.

Tara Sherry-Torres, founder of Cafe Con Leche (Spanish for milk in coffee), which hosts events to bring together Latinos in Pittsburgh, said identification cards are particularly important to help newly arrived immigrants navigate government and do such things as open bank accounts.

“It can be difficult to really have all of the documents that you need to get a city ID or a state ID,” she said.

Betty Cruz, Pittsburgh’s special initiatives manager, said the city would try to partner with foundations, Allegheny County and community organizations to develop future programs.

The Hillman Foundation gave the city $50,000 to start Welcoming Pittsburgh. The grant paid for hiring Jackson Clark Partners, a Highland Park-based consulting firm.

“Maybe we’ll do a wellness class, because depression and suicide rates among some of our more vulnerable immigrants is high,” Cruz said. “Maybe we can partner with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council to have some English classes.”

Bob Bauder is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-765-2312 or [email protected].

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