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A conversation about Immigrants and refugees in Western New York

Photo by kafeinkolik/Shutterstock.com; all other photos by kc kratt


Buffalo has settled over 10,000 refugees since 2003. The future of this welcoming policy remains unclear in the current political climate, but that’s all the more reason to look at how these newcomers are faring and clarify what they bring to our already diverse community.


Denise Phillips Beehag, the International Institute of Buffalo’s director of new American integration, oversees operations for programs that include refugee resettlement and employment. With over twenty years in both nonprofit and for-profit settings, her experience includes advocacy, training, and mentorship of ethnic organizations, and helping to develop mutual assistance organizations.


In addition to directing the Mayor’s Office of New Americans (ONA), Jessica Lazarin is deputy corporation counsel for the City of Buffalo Law Department. Previous to these concurrent positions, Lazarin was an immigration defense attorney with the Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides civil legal assistance to low-income individuals.


Saladi Shebule is a native of Somalia who spent much of his childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp. He has been in Buffalo since 2004, and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Daemen College. He works with Buffalo Public Schools as a liaison to newly arriving students and families.


Before returning to his hometown of Buffalo, John Starkey, principal of Lafayette International High School #207 advocated for Hudson Valley migrant workers. As principal of LaGuardia Community College’s International High School in Queens, New York, he led turnaround efforts at two Bronx high schools.


How did Buffalo become as immigrant- and refugee-friendly as it is?

Denise Phillips Beehag: We have a history of welcoming immigrants; decades ago, they were Polish, Irish German, Italian. People have seen that the newer refugees are having a positive impact on the city—reversing population decline and revitalizing neighborhoods.


Jessica Lazarin: The residents of the city have been historically open, welcoming, accepting; there is the expectation that newcomers have needs, and that by working together we can meet them. Nationally now, when I go to conferences, Buffalo is getting highlighted for that—showing off how welcoming we are. Outside of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Mayor Brown’s Office for New Americans is the only such office in the state.


Saladi Shebule: It is more accepting than many places, largely due to combination of the number of people from abroad here—immigrants and refugees—and the resettlement agencies that work with these individuals. In general, Buffalo has done great things, opening its doors, accommodating, and creating opportunities for refugees.


John Starkey: Partly because Buffalo had hard times for so long, there isn’t the misperception that everything was good up until any specific group of refugees or immigrants came. With the more recent immigrants' and refugees’ arrival, some of Buffalo’s most dilapidated areas were rejuvenated. People appreciate their new neighbors’ old-world values.



What are we doing to welcome these new populations?

DPB: Our county executive and mayor are pro refugee and immigrant. Our officials say publically, “We value you.” They get to know them, attend events, help resettlement agencies. The public is very supportive; many say they don’t like the anti-immigration sentiment we're seeing at the national level. People—employers, landlords and general citizens—are calling us and asking how they can help.


JL: It’s welcoming because of its people. The city holds several annual events formally recognizing newcomers and others’ contributions. There’s Immigrant Heritage month, which was inaugurated in 2015. And, now that the ONA officially has a budget, we’re joining the national organization, Welcoming America.


SS: In addition to more collaboration among the resettlement agencies, which only assist you for a limited time, there are established and emerging ethnic-based community organizations drawing people here—those community organizations can provide ongoing assistance. Attracting and retaining refugees is a great start.


I was on the steering committee for the city’s Office of New Americans. The city is doing its part too—getting to know the newcomers, what their needs are. Also some elected officials, like Assemblyman Sean Ryan, are fighting tirelessly in Albany to secure funding for agencies to be able to provide services for refugees.


JS: The school superintendent’s New Educational Bargain is a pact between the district, parents, and students—giving students and parents certain responsibilities. In return, the district promises to offer things like community schools with academic, language, and art opportunities for families and parents. We’ve increased cultural and linguistic competency in the schools.


How are we doing?

DPB: Every day, I see people getting jobs. People who have been here for ten years tell us that they now own a home, their kids are going to college. The changes in Buffalo have a lot to do with it; our clients are able to be a part of that.


JL: We get a high mark. Our government is vocal in its support. Initially, I didn’t understand the impact on the community groups when the mayor or other government representative attends their events. Many of them say things like, “Having government recognition is so important to us; we left our nations because of how our government treated us.”


The ONA is getting to know the different groups. Some are more concerned with youth sports activities, some with their children’s academics, and some want to have their community members become homeowners. Doing this work has affirmed to me that, at our core, we’re all the same.


SS: When it comes to welcoming, accepting, and embracing refugees and immigrants, the city is doing what it can; it sets a good example of how other cities should welcome. The rally in February, where thousands of people turned out to fight for immigration reform, shows how we view some of these issues, how we embrace and support each other.


JS: Two major reasons we have an immigrant and refugee pipeline in the first place is our world-class refugee placement agencies, in an affordable city. The missing piece was world-class education, and we’re addressing that.



How are immigrants and refugees doing?

DPB: Language has been and always will be a barrier; it’s the number one struggle. Learning a new language takes a long time. And you need it for navigating everything. The uncertainty in the political climate creates challenges for our clients; it’s like a gray cloud. They worry. But they are also resilient.


JL: The groups that are organizing are doing well. They are looking for ways to access information and services. While our office can’t do everything, we’re working to be a real referral resource. Some leaders recently requested assistance with establishing their own cemetery; we found another group that’s already done it, and put them together.


SS: New Americans, especially refugees, generally tend to do well and make progress. After fleeing dangerous and desperate places, they help reshape neighborhoods when they purchase and renovate houses, and add to economy growth and employment by opening businesses. They are able to send their children to be educated; adults also have educational opportunities.


JS: It is challenging when students—especially older ones—aren’t literate in their native language. The stronger you are in your first language, the more likely that you can acquire English, which increases probability for success in school, college, and career.


What can be done better?

DPB: Because of political correctness, and fear of people looking or speaking differently, some are afraid to ask questions or just say, “What was your country like?” or “Can I ask about your religion?” It can be as simple as saying “Hi,” or offering a neighbor some tomatoes from your garden. The formal welcoming model is based on grassroots interactions.


We need to focus more on our similarities than our differences. Refugee parents have the same issues with their teenagers that inner city parents might have.


JL: Building cultural competency. Buffalo Police Department recruits now receive training. Captain Nichols and I coordinate presentations from various groups. It’s helpful for police officers to begin to understand cultural norms and differences. There are some cultures that don’t shake hands, or believe that looking someone in the eye is disrespectful. Of course, in American culture, it means something completely different.


We also need to listen well, and be directly responsive, not just decide what we think everyone needs.


SS: Although newly arrived Americans feel welcomed, they can also feel that they’re losing their culture and identity.


The support has to match the many newly arrived Americans. They face many challenges—learning English, securing safe and affordable housing, and obtaining employment, as well as assimilating and adapting to a new life.


The experience can be challenging for both younger and older generations. The younger generation often faces pressure; they can get into violent groups, get into trouble, be arrested, maybe deported, or worse, killed. There must be cultural programs to help young people succeed.


There should be more resources to advance girls’ education. In some of their cultures, it’s normal for girls to get married and leave school. There should be early intervention programs focusing on life skills and the culture of working, having a family, and continuing your education.


JS: We’re missing the ball on getting “English language learner” students ready for career and college, and shortchanging them if we only prepare them to pass the Regents. Our assessment strategy, which drives curriculum, needs to shift. Teachers must facilitate student collaboration. Our students come from forty-five different countries—we need to have them “own their learning.”


Jana Eisenberg is a longtime contributor to Spree.


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