The Pittsburgh Foundation

Aylan, the pope and Pittsburgh

Max King

By Maxwell King

President and CEO, The Pittsburgh Foundation

One of the most important images connected to Pope Francis’ trip to the United States last week actually happened, from my view, several weeks before his arrival. It was the profoundly tragic and heartwrenching picture of a lifeless 3-year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, his tiny body dressed in a red T-shirt and long shorts washed up on a beach resort in northeastern Turkey.

The issues that played into his death and the issues that the pope spoke about at every opportunity in his three-city American tour are immigration and the growing refugee crisis. Millions of Syrians and other Middle East groups are fleeing their war-torn countries only to confront closed borders, unscrupulous human smugglers and denied claims for asylum in Europe and North America.

That was the situation with Aylan, his parents and his brother, who were among 23 Syrians in two boats launched from Turkey’s Bodrum peninsula and headed to the Greek island of Kos, a way stop on their ultimate destination, Vancouver, Canada. As is the case with many refugees’ attempts to reach other countries, the Kurdi family’s water crossing ended badly. Aylan’s father was the only member of the family to survive when the boat they were in capsized.

As the father of two sons and as the president of a foundation dedicated to improving the human condition in local communities, I am focused on the image of Aylan and how the refugee issue affects all of us in Pittsburgh.

Anyone who spends more than a few days here knows that Pittsburgh was built on the backs of immigrants and refugees who fled poverty and acts of inhumanity over the past two centuries. Based on history alone, I believe we have a moral duty to support the federal government in going beyond the current commitment to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees into the United States through next year. This is a paltry number in comparison to the four million Syrians who have fled to other countries.

And we need to offer Pittsburgh as a welcoming resettlement city.    

I know that there is a perfectly logical and cautious argument against Pittsburgh getting involved: the struggles of millions of foreigners, while pitiable, should not be our problem. After all, it is happening an ocean’s distance away and we have more than enough problems to solve in our own back yard.

But it is rich irony that the “Not-in-our-back-yard” argument is playing out in many of the same Eastern European countries that saw citizens flee generations ago to Pittsburgh to find freedom and better lives.

The policy of encouraging immigrants to settle here has been central to Mayor Bill Peduto’s plan to bring 20,000 new residents to the city over the next decade. He also has joined 17 other mayors across the country – from Allentown to Los Angeles – as signatories on a letter to President Obama promising to welcome and support Syrian refugees in their cities and urging him to raise the number accepted for resettlement. With proper screening and coordination with federal authorities, there is no reason why Pittsburgh couldn’t become one of the new hometowns for refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.

In Pittsburgh, a wide range of organizations have experience in refugee resettlement – from faith-based organizations such as Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh and Jewish Family and Children’s Services to the Squirrel Hill Health Center to Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services, which was instrumental in temporary resettlement of many New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina.   

Once federal and local governments have specific plans to accommodate some of the refugees coming through Europe, we at The Pittsburgh Foundation stand ready to help with the program, as we have in the past. In this case, we will rely on our colleagues in government and the nonprofit sector to advise us on how to be part of what we hope will be an outpouring of support across this region to meet the needs of refugees who resettle here.

The pope has done all of us in this country a service by focusing on the immigrant and refugee experience. He reminds those of us in local philanthropy and government that as our cultural and historical roots have sustained us, now we must sustain others. “We, the people of this continent cannot be fearful of foreigners,” he told Congress, “because most of us once were foreigners.”

Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation