Buffalo’s newest newcomers adjust
By Jessica Keltz

Suad Hassan Obsiye and
Thomas Nshagayintwari
Photo by kc kratt.
“Einstein was a refugee,” reads one of the many posters crowding the walls of Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services’ cramped office above a Franklin Street carpet store. Others advise clients where to apply for a green card, when DMV letters will be accepted, and that the minimum wage has gone up to $7.15 per hour. New immigrants clutching paperwork come and go every few minutes, and the phone rings constantly.

This hectic space is the home base for Somali native Suad Hassan Obsiye and Rwandan native Thomas Nshagayintwari’s work helping refugees adjust to their new lives in Buffalo.
Both Obsiye and Nshagayintwari (who is sometimes known as “Thomas N.”) are ideal candidates to guide refugees who are new to the United States, as they were both refugees themselves, also assisted by Catholic Charities. Nshagayintwari arrived in 1998 and Obsiye in 1999. Since then, both have witnessed Buffalo’s refugee population explode, as well as a shift in where the refugees are arriving from. For many, the initial adjustment to life in Buffalo is a struggle.

“My expectation was that it would be like Europe,” Obsiye recalls of her arrival in the United States. “When I came to Buffalo, I was residing on the East Side. The first month was very hard for me here.” In Somalia, her husband was a businessman and she occasionally accompanied him on trips out of the country. She worked for the United Nations during an earlier phase of Somalia’s civil war, but had to travel to Cairo for an operation.

“When I was in Cairo, my husband died, so I didn’t have any place to go back to,” she says. Obsiye decided to apply for refugee status and moved to the United States. Back in Africa, she had studied English and history in college, but her degree didn’t transfer so she went back to Erie Community College and was hired as a caseworker at Catholic Charities, where she continues to work. In 2006, she bought a house on the West Side of Buffalo, where the local Somali community is concentrated.

“Somali people here are doing good,” Obsiye says. “There’s a lot of people who have bought a house. They have many stores, things like that.” Somali-owned businesses in Buffalo include the Somali Star, a takeout restaurant on Grant Street that serves the only Somali cuisine available in the area and draws curious foodies from the Elmwood Village and beyond to the neighborhood. Obsiye estimates that eighty percent of Buffalo’s Somali population lives on the West Side.

“Somali people, they like to be close,” she says. “If you reside on the East Side, people ask you, why don’t you move? They like to be close so they can help each other.” At work, Obsiye sees refugees from Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Burma/Myanmar, Iraq, Russia, and Afghanistan in addition to Somalia. “What I see—the people, when they come, they make a lot of progress,” she says. “They’re doing a great job.”

Before Rwanda’s civil war, now considered the worst genocide of the 1990s, Thomas Nshagayintwari worked as a high school teacher. When he fled the war, he moved first to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then to Senegal, on the other side of the continent. From Senegal, he came to the United States.

In Rwanda, educated people learn French in school in addition to a native language, he explains. When he arrived in the United States, he knew a bit of English as well, but not a single other person. “I didn’t know anybody here,” he recalls. “But the good news—when I came, at the airport I met a case manager and she came with someone from Rwanda to translate for me. It was a good surprise for me. I wasn’t expecting to meet someone who spoke my language.”

Currently a resident of Cheektowaga, Nshagayintwari lived in an East Side apartment building near Broadway and Sycamore when he first came to Buffalo. There, although there were no other refugees from Rwanda in the building, he met new arrivals from Vietnam and from Russia. A week later, in an English language class, he met a Rwandan family who’d been in Buffalo for a year. Later, more Rwandan refugees began to trickle in.

“After my arrival, we saw a lot of Rwandans come to America. I was a case manager here so I used to see them. After 2000, it slowed down,” he says. Today, Nshagayintwari explains, the most common points of origin for the refugees Catholic Charities resettles are Burma/Myanmar and Burundi.

In many West Side neighborhoods, the influx of new populations is unmistakable. People speak a broad variety of languages on their porches and in their yards, and women in traditional African dress often stroll the sidewalks. “Because of my job I know they are coming,” Nshagayintwari notes of the various refugee groups. “But you can see them on the street. The population on the West Side is growing.”

Kevin Eberle, the principal of Grover Cleveland High School’s International Preparatory School, says the school is the academic home to students from seventy countries who speak forty different languages. Eberle, who has worked at the school for four years, explains that world events determine who arrives on Buffalo’s West Side, where Grover Cleveland is located. “The Sudanese population is starting to grow rapidly,” he says, referencing the nation that has drawn headlines due to the war in its Darfur region that the United States government has termed a genocide.

Eberle has worked at various schools around WNY over the past twenty years, but says there’s no place like Grover Cleveland. “Grover is probably the most unique, from my own personal outlook on educating students,” he remarks. “You feel that you are at a different level, because you really are educating the world.”

Jessica Keltz is an attorney and freelance writer, as well as a former tutor for Somali Bantu refugees.



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