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A documentary, some bickering, and my experience with refugees on the West Side: Part two of three.

See part 1

The West side of Buffalo has been getting a lot if attention lately, mostly for the beatification efforts targeting its abandoned lots, underdeveloped business sector, and landmarks rampant with graffiti. The documentary Nickel City Smiler, which focuses on Karen refugees, is trying to bring attention to the West Side of Buffalo and the refugees that populate it. After the film was released, it received some negative feedback from Buffalo’s refugee resettlement agencies, since the film didn’t portray them in a very good light, and inferred that “bureaucratic posturing” is yet again preventing business from keeping its promises.

Scott Murchie, co-director of Nickel City Smiler, says to bash or ignore the film is to take part in what he calls “compulsive optimism”, or pretending everything is fine when in reality it is not.

“The whole perception, the way Buffalo is portrayed in the film is sickening,” said Molly Short, director of Journey’s End Refugee Services. 

“The refugees who are featured in the film offer constructive criticism that is based in real, every day experience,” Scott says. He believes the agencies are trying to ignore situations in which refugees are not succeeding.

I’m not sure yet if compulsive optimism has helped our struggling city or not. Nice words are not usually used to describe Buffalo, so it is a nice change to hear some compliments about it. Compulsive optimism only gets in the way because it often causes ignorance of problems that need to be fixed, like the ones portrayed in the film.

I had a chance to meet with the directors of three of the four resettlement agencies in Buffalo. I asked them about their view of the film, and if it represents the refugee situation fairly, and how they feel about the refugee situation in Buffalo. 

First off, I will explain a little bit about how the resettlement agencies work. They are not for profit organizations, and are mostly funded by grants from the government. (Therefore spending cuts by the government are a huge threat to the agencies’ abilities to provide services.) Agencies are hooked up with the refugees through the Department of State. Many refugees that come to Buffalo are from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Liberia, Cuba, and sometimes other places as well.

As required by the DOS, the agencies provide assistance to refugees to help them become productive members of society. The agencies are responsible for such things as providing housing, turning on utilities, shopping for groceries, applying for community programs, enrolling children in school, and finding employment.

Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Services, Journey’s End, and International Institute are all members of Western New York Refugee and Asylee Consortium. WNYRAC is an alliance designed to mutually address the needs of refugees in Buffalo. According to the agencies, they are audited regularly to make sure they are doing a good job.

“I think there’s an opportunity to cut and paste in things the way that you want,” remarked Marlene Schillinger of Jewish Family Services, when I asked about the accuracy of the film.

“There were a number of ways where [refugees] in the film were mislead,” said Molly Short, when I asked about some statements made by refugees pertaining to their resettlement agencies. Marlene said some refugees, including then 11 year old Moe Joe, were probably coached. After meeting with some Karen refugees, it is fair to say that they are a shy bunch, but to say they had been coached may be inaccurate. I had a few interesting conversations with Moe Joe, now 12, and I think he may be better versed in politics than I am. To say he was coached into talking about “street animals” in his neighborhood, and how the violence and crime in his neighborhood upsets him, is to underestimate his articulacy.

Since the film was released, some aspects within the resettlement agencies have changed for the better. The four agencies are meeting and working together more conventionally, and are now receiving more government funding than they were before filming began. But the agencies still cannot handle all of the struggling refugees on their own. Many, if they cannot sustain themselves after about six months, go to places like Jericho Road and HOPE to find assistance. There they can receive assistance with finding employment, filling out paperwork and learning English. However, even those places are overwhelmed by the number of refugees needing assistance.

Not knowing how to speak or write English is one of the biggest problems facing the refugees. Daniel Leong, a Karen translator for NCS and employee of School 45, believes that many of the refugees problems come about from not understanding the language, or being ignored. He says that Karen people are especially shy, and often have a hard time speaking up to caseworkers.

If HOPE or Jericho isn’t open, Smiler Greely is usually available to help. Many flock to his West Side home in search for assistance finding a job, or filling out paperwork. Smiler’s name fits him very well; he is always smiling and friendly, and was very welcoming when I visited his home. While I was there, I spoke to Daniel, along with Tikee (whose family was featured in NCS.) Smiler is quite the talker. He told me about his plight in Thailand, fighting the Burmese army and hiding out in a refugee camp.

Aside from his day job, he is also an unofficial community caretaker. He assists neighbors in filling out paperwork, making phone calls, paying their bills, and an array of other things.

In America, he says, “Everything is paper.”

The problem with so much paperwork is that many of the refugees in Buffalo cannot speak or write fluent English. Even though the refugees must take some English as Second Language training, it is often times not enough. Smiler is lucky to have learned English in high school in Burma. Refugees are taught how to call 911 when they get to America, and sometimes even before they arrive, but that is a problem when one does not speak English well. As well as Smiler knows English, it is still hard to understand him in person, let alone over the phone.

About a week after my first meeting, I made another trip to Smiler’s, this time to take some pictures and check out some Karen accessories. MaDee, Smiler’s wife, makes satchels by hand. They also had gotten in some clothing and bags from Thailand. Scott and his crew helped Smiler’s family sell some of the bags and accessories at the Kick Off the Summer in the Center in Clarence. They coordinated a place in the festival and made some money for Smiler’s family and his sister back in Thailand.


At Smiler’s house, Ma Dee had me try on some Sarongs and Karen dresses (lead image). It was a little warm to be wearing them around, but they were very unique and beautiful.

After spending some time with Smiler’s family, and other refugees, I feel humbled, and quite a bit more cultured. They were promised a better life in America, but they need a little extra help. Being plopped down in an unfamiliar setting, with an unfamiliar language and culture can be very upsetting. All these people want is a little help, and patience. They don’t want hand-outs, th
ey just want to be shown how to manage things on their own. And if you want to help, you can certainly volunteer your time and teach English to new refugees.

One could say (as I used to think), “Why focus so much on the refugees when there are so many other citizens in Buffalo struggling?” There are a lot of problems that need fixed in the city, but I guess one has to start somewhere. CEP is starting with the refugees, who are giving hope to a city that could use an influx of culture. Their objective though, is not to take down the agencies. It is to get them to own up to certain past mistakes, work together with the agencies, and discontinue business as usual. I can definitely see the the point of view of the agencies… however, if they don’t get enough funding from the government, it makes it very hard for them to maintain their services. There is no easy solution to these issues.

*Note: Currently I am reaching out to teachers who have experience teaching refugee children. I am waiting to hear from them and hopefully talk to some of their students, to get more varied viewpoints from refugees from all different countries.

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