Critics have called Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto a traitor and worse for his stance on wanting to resettle Syrian refugees in the city, but the mayor remains steadfast in his commitment to provide homes to 500 refugees yearly as long as service providers can handle that number.

Peduto on Thursday said Syrians and about 500 other immigrants who pour into the Pittsburgh region each year can help rebuild the city’s blighted neighborhoods and attract businesses looking to locate in diverse cities.

“We have areas of the city that have lost 80 percent of its population since the 1980s,” Peduto told a gathering of about 110 people at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church. “We have blight. We have abandoned properties. We have people from all over the world who need help. We have the opportunity to rebuild communities. To rebuild neighborhoods.”

Resettlement agencies say Peduto’s goal of 500 Syrians is unattainable right now because the city lacks enough affordable housing and jobs to support them.

Leslie Aizenman, director of immigrant and refugee services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services based in Squirrel Hill, said four Syrian families with a total of about 30 people have settled in Pittsburgh so far.

“I don’t think we’re going to see major increases at this time,”she said, adding that the Syrians as well as other refugees serviced by her organization are “doing very well.”

The United States has admitted 2,234 Syrian refugees since October 2010, according to the State Department. Pennsylvania has accepted 169 Syrian refugees since October 2014, according to online statistics posted by the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program.

Peduto last year joined 17 mayors from across the county in urging President Obama to accept more than his proposed number of 10,000 Syrians this fiscal year. The mayors said they would work to find space for refugees in their cities.

Peduto said he was raised by an Italian immigrant grandfather who was discriminated against when he arrived in America.

The mayor said he “couldn’t live with myself” if he didn’t try to help Syrian refugees.

“I was never going to change my position,” he said. “I just was taken aback by how negative the reaction was in the way it was being described.”

Laila Al-Soulaiman of the Pittsburgh Islamic Center said United States has a long history of accepting refugees from war-torn countries like Syria. Fifty percent of 4.27 million Syrian refugees are children, and many of the adults are well-educated, she said.

She also recognized the criticism and fear directed toward Peduto.

“We know the kind of rhetoric that we’re up against,” she said. “We know the rhetoric of hatred and Islamophobia and xenophobia. At the Islamic center, we are experiencing the amount of rhetoric in growing amounts.”

Kevin Caridad, chair of the Pennsylvania National Association of Social Workers South West Division, said the group hosted the “Syrian Summit” to present accurate information about the refugee crisis.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review.

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