Afghan Lands on Solid Ground in Pittsburgh Public Health

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Uprooted from Kabul, welcomed in Pittsburgh

“We left everything behind. Our careers, the city that we loved for years, my apartment, my car, everything,” says Jalal. “And then it kind of struck me — I have to start everything from scratch not only for me, but for my family.”

When Jalal’s family of five fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August of 2021, they flew out sitting on the bare floor of a U.S. military plane. Jalal, 42, who had previously earned his degree in public health and later worked for the USAID in Kabul, had absolutely no idea where they were going.

Jalal, his wife, and their 11, 8 and 3 year olds landed on a crowded U.S. air base in Germany, where they spent almost two months in a small tent with six other families. The days dragged on, mostly spent waiting in hour-long lines for food, maybe a shower.

“You will not live in war forever,” Jalal used to tell his kids, who passed the time scurrying between tents with new friends. After 50 days of waiting, soldiers shook the family awake in the middle of the night. It was time to fly out of the German air base — this time in a passenger plane with proper seats.

They landed in the U.S. at long last, and Jalal knew that he needed to find a job that could help rebuild his family’s lives.

“Now, they’re telling you, ‘Forget about your career,’” says Jalal. “‘Do whatever you can — do Uber, do pizza delivery, do this, do that.’ But I couldn’t.”

With his master’s in hand, Jalal wanted to support his family’s future, not just make ends meet. But he knew that restarting his life and career from scratch in the U.S. would require some help. He opted to submit his information to Talent Beyond Boundaries, which had created a database repository of Afghan refugees in search of employment.

In early 2022, Talent Beyond Boundaries offered additional support, referring Jalal to Upwardly Global, a direct service organization that specializes in helping immigrants and refugees with professional backgrounds find skill-aligned work. Upwardly Global had tailored its free job coaching, upskilling, and networking resources to address the significant barriers faced by the influx of Afghan refugees, an estimated 10,000 of them with professional degrees

“When I looked at the way Upwardly Global structured their training, I thought, ‘They’re reading Afghans’ minds,’” says Jalal.

He found that Upwardly Global’s one-on-one coaching and skilling programs predicted each of Afghan newcomers’ cross-cultural differences — Jalal’s resume, as simple as it seemed, required a complete reboot for the U.S. job market. Upwardly Global also directly connected Jalal to open positions at workplaces committed to hiring diverse talent.

After just three months, as warm weather ushered in the spring season, Jalal landed a job as a Monitoring and Evaluation Analyst at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services in his new home of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has now worked there for over half a year, his family supported by the reliable salary.

Collaborations among critical organizations that support Afghans rebuilding their careers in the U.S. has led to Jalal’s and many other stories of successful transitions. After all, sometimes a support system can make all the difference.

With his career set in motion and his kids enrolled in the local public school, Jalal looks to the future now on a sturdier foundation — hoping to send his first kid to college in seven years, buy a house in ten, and live out his days in the U.S. for many decades to come.

As Jalal told his kids back at the German base, they would not live in war forever. With a bit of help, normal life finally resumed.

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