PITTSBURGH — Resettled to this city’s southern suburbs after 20 years in Nepalese refugee camps, Bhanu Phuyel has acclimated and prospered. In the nine years since two Jewish refugee agencies helped him join this community, Phuyel has worked at McDonald’s and the post office, as a long-haul trucker and as a caretaker for older people, he said.
In 2013, he opened his own jewelry store, and he has since purchased rental apartments.
But this week, Bhutanese refugees such as Phuyel and the aid agencies that brought him here were disturbingly reminded that there are those who do not welcome them in Pittsburgh. Robert Bowers, who grew up not far from where Phuyel lives, is accused of a mass shooting at a synagogue and of targeting the Tree of Life congregation to vent his hatred of Jews and immigrants. He is alleged to have specifically mentioned a prominent resettlement agency as a target of his ire in online posts.
When Phuyel heard that Bowers allegedly wanted to kill Jews, he, too, felt threatened.
“I felt that we were also his target,” Phuyel said Tuesday in an interview at a friend’s clothing store. “All the people resettled by Jews were his target.”
Just before authorities say he shot and killed 11 worshipers at Tree of Life in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, Bowers allegedly posted on social media that a refugee resettlement group, HIAS, “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
HIAS, an umbrella resettlement group that contracts with the U.S. State Department to bring refugees to the country, and Jewish Family and Community Services, its local partner, spoke out about the violence, saying that the refugees they bring to the region are no different from their own relatives and neighbors.
“They want safety, peace and a better life for their children,” Jordan Golin, JFCS’s president and chief executive, said at a news conference. “These values should unite us, not divide us.”
The rampage will test the ties that greater Pittsburgh’s refugees have built here, community leaders said. While friction between newly arrived immigrants and established communities has been part of U.S. life for generations, Pittsburgh community leaders have expressed pride in the way their city has handled the most recent wave of refugees, which includes Bhutanese, Somalis, Iraqis and the Myanmar people.
“We hope to live a secure life,” said Khara Timsina, executive director of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh. The region has about 6,000 Bhutanese residents. “When such things happen, it proves otherwise, that America is no longer a safe haven for people who have endured such traumas.”
The area near where Bowers lived in Baldwin, a part of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, has been part of the city’s transition, attracting significant growth in Asian and Hispanic residents during the past two decades, according to demographic data. Almost all white in 1990, it is now far more racially diverse.
Some refugees described a duality in the city. They have seen extraordinary kindness — particularly on the part of religious groups and social service agencies — but they also have seen ugly racial divisions that have led to violence. Even as the city diversifies under the leadership of a Democratic mayor who has made a concerted effort to attract immigrants, racially motivated crimes persist.
Six white men and women were charged in July with shouting racial slurs and beating a black man in a bar in Avalon, Pa., about eight miles northwest of the city. Some were wearing clothes with the logos of a prominent statewide skinhead group.
In 2015, after a Kenny Chesney concert, four white men were charged in connection with an assault in which a black man was racially insulted, beaten and thrown onto the tracks of the light rail system. In 2009, a man who expressed racist views in white supremacist forums and espoused Zionist conspiracy theories shot and killed three Pittsburgh police officers.
Aweys Mwaliya, president of the Somali Bantu Community Association of Pittsburgh, moved to the city in 2011 after living in Salt Lake City, noting that the atmosphere was markedly different.
“The people here are very good people,” Mwaliya said. “But the racial problem is worse than many places I have lived.”
Sanjeeb Rai, 22, lives in a small apartment in Leland Point, a sprawling complex of brick buildings that has become a hub of the Bhutanese refugee community. She escaped squalid refugee camps in eastern Nepal and was resettled by JFCS.
Rai said she faced inexplicable hostility from classmates at Baldwin High School and occasionally strange looks at the grocery store. But she has largely been left alone, she said.
“Why would they hate us being here?” Rai said.
JFCS described a strong outreach from recent immigrants after the massacre. Grateful for what they have found in Pittsburgh, expatriate communities have offered money and social support. Pittsburgh’s Muslims have raised $150,000 in aid since the shooting.
“I’m now reaching out to the refugee community to see how we can help, and they’re now saying, ‘How can we help you?’ ” said Leslie Aizenman, the director of refugee and immigrant services at JFCS.
Noor Alsabahi, 36, a Syrian refugee who moved into an apartment in Pittsburgh on the day of the shooting, said she walked the few blocks from her home to attend the vigil for the synagogue victims Saturday night.
“I felt it was my duty to come,” she said. “I am a member of the community. As I am taking a lot, I want to pay it back.”
On the day President Trump placed a white flower and a small stone on each Star of David in the makeshift memorial outside Tree of Life, refugees and others here cited his role in the refugee debate. They referred to his language about immigrants and refugees, the ban on U.S. entry by citizens of a number of majority-Muslim countries and his decision to cut legal refugee resettlement from 85,000 in fiscal 2016 to 22,491 in fiscal 2018.
Asked whether he supported Trump’s visit, Mark Hetfield, HIAS’s president and CEO, said, “It would be inappropriate for him not to come. But given his role in spreading hate against refugees. . . . I’m not comfortable with it.”
Mwaliya, the Somali community leader, also has grown increasingly uneasy since Trump was elected.
“But the good thing about Pittsburgh,” he said, “is you have good neighbors who will stand with people who are being racially abused.”