For Pittsburgh’s immigrants, COVID-19 amplifies language barriers, food scarcity and limited work

by Meg St-Esprit

As Pittsburgh-area residents filled grocery carts in preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic, language barriers and a lack of information left many local immigrants unable to stock up before shelves emptied.

“They were calling us, saying, ‘There is no toilet paper or food anywhere. What is going on?’” said Rosamaria Cristello, founder and executive director of the Latino Community Center [LCC].

Many immigrant families found themselves suddenly without income as closures caused the elimination of service industry jobs.

And while several organizations serve portions of the 75,000 immigrants in the Pittsburgh regions, those groups have had to quickly adapt to bridge the communication gaps and start delivering remote services to residents used to visiting in person. “A lot of the information about COVID-19 was in English,” Cristello said, “and it was really nerve-wracking for people who could not understand what was going on.”

Cristello also began working with area schools and government agencies to get the information out in Spanish and other languages and established more phone lines because residents were used to showing up in person. The Allegheny County Health Department has since been able to provide information in different languages after Cristello said they connected them with Global Wordsmiths, an international nonprofit dedicated to translation and language access. She notes that there is some lag time, but it is a major step in the right direction. The county now provides COVID-19 updates in five written languages and American Sign Language.

Siraji Hassan, president of the United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh, has been facing similar concerns in his community. He has been coordinating food distributions to his members from 412 Food Rescue, Northside Commons Ministry and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Hassan and case manager Fatuma Muhina are meeting with families face-to-face to help them file unemployment claims and access resources for financial assistance.

Packages of food to be distributed to Latino families in Pittsburgh. The Latino Community Center has partnered with 412 Food Rescue and A+ Schools to supply food. (Photo courtesy of the Latino Community Center)



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