Many times we happen to read about Buffalo’s refugees and immigrants or we view them from a distance. In recent years we have had the opportunity to interact with some of the refugee populations, as they open businesses, integrate into the school system, and move into our neighborhoods (or we move into theirs). For the most part, Buffalonians tend not to interact with our newest neighbors, mainly due to language barriers. This past summer was the first time that I saw some of the Burmese population starting to explore Elmwood Avenue, and that was a welcome sign that meant that they were beginning to explore outside of their comfort zones.
Per yesterday’s article
on the recent economic growth on the West Side, there is another statistic that should be examined. Over the last decade, Grant-Ferry, Black Rock and Riverside tracts grew between one and nine percent. At the same time, the number of Asians living in the city doubled to 8,300. Not only are we getting accustomed to seeing this sort of population growth throughout areas of the city, we’re also starting to see a commercial presence in certain districts. Take Hertel Avenue for instance. If you haven’t seen the recent explosion of Iraqi markets on the street, then you aren’t paying close attention.
This Thursday, Buffalonians are invited to celebrate this cultural infusion, by way of attending Buffalo Without Borders
at Asbury Hall aka Babeville. It’s a chance to meet the refugee populations firsthand, and to learn about their respective cultures. Not only will you get to eat some ethnic foods, and listen to culturally diverse music, the West Side Bazaar will be on-hand selling wares from many of the featured countries, including Burma and Bhutan. Starting at 5:30pm, the event will even include some ethnic foods, music and dancing, while 400+ Buffalonians will mingle with the guests of honor in order to appreciate the various skill sets that they bring with them.
The cost of the event is $50, which includes admission, hors d’ oeuvres, wine, and entertainment. To order tickets, please call 716-380-8565.
Following is some additional information as provided by The International Institute:
Although the International Institute of Buffalo (IIB) assists immigrants and refugees from all countries of the world assimilate into American culture and become active members in the community, people from the countries of Burma, Bhutan and Iraq represent the largest portion of newcomers to Western New York. Below are some facts and figures about these fascinating regions.
• Myanmar, (formerly known as “Burma”), is ruled by a military dictatorship. This ruling junta keeps strict control over the Burmese people, suppressing all free press, limiting access to the Internet and using tactics such as imprisonment, disappearances, torture, systematic rape and extrajudicial execution to deal with dissidents.
• Burmese refugees currently total more than 300,000 people in neighboring Thailand, India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia.
• Under British colonial rule, Burma was the richest country in Southeast Asia, awash in rubies, oil and valuable timber. Sadly, after decades of mismanagement by post-independence dictators, Myanmar has become one of the poorest nations in the world.
• Recently, the Myanmar government released a small group of political prisoners in what the government called a step toward democracy. A complete count of those released was not immediately available, but it appears that the authorities had released only a small fraction of the 2,000 political prisoners that Amnesty International estimates to be behind bars. Many observers have been critical of the move and called it a negotiating ploy related to economic sanctions against Myanmar – although there are some who see it as a positive step.
• There are an estimated 3,000 – 4,000 people from Burma living in Buffalo and WNY. Most came as refugees and were resettled here by the U.S. government through agencies like the IIB, but there are also some who came on their own as immigrants. The different Burmese communities (Karenni, Karen, Chin and others) have their own religions and festivals; many are open to the public. There is a Burmese-owned restaurant on Niagara Street, Sun Food, and several Burmese-owned grocers on Grant Street.
• About 35 percent of the refugees the International Institute of Buffalo resettles are from Burma.
• Known as the last Shangri La, Bhutan has generated one of the highest numbers of refugees in the world in proportion to its population.
• Since 1991 over 1/6 of Bhutan’s people have sought asylum in Nepal, India and other countries around the world.
• Initially, Nepali people in the 1890’s were encouraged to move to Bhutan to help farm the country and build it up.
• In 1958, ethnic Nepalis were granted citizenship and in the mid 1980’s there were mass movements on the part of the government to fully integrate ethnic communities and religions.
• In 1989 that all changed, and a “one nation one people” policy was initiated – so the requirement was one language, one dress, etc. Persecution began. People couldn’t’ speak their language, practice other religions, etc. (Bhutan is primarly Buddhist).
• In the 1990’s people began to flee, there were public demonstrations, thousands of people were tortured, etc.
• In 1992 the first refugee camp in Nepal was established.
• Approximately 35 percent of the refugees resettled by the IIB this year are from Bhutan; many have lived in the camps for more than a decade before they arrive in the U.S.
• Since 2003, 1 in 6 Iraqis have fled (approximately 4.7 million people).
• Most of these people are religious minorities and people affiliated with the U.S. government.
• Most flee to Lebanon, Syria or Jordan. They may have been affluent in Iraq but in order to survive had to sell all their belongings prior to fleeing.
• Life in Syria in particular is very difficult for refugees. Continued political problems, lack of healthcare and currently no processing of any refugees because of the political situation makes it particularly difficult for family in the U.S. with members in Syria. Many have been waiting years to have immediate family members join them.
• Approximately 10 percent of the refugees resettled by the International Institute of Buffalo are from Iraq.
• Several Iraqi owned businesses, such as restaurants and grocery stores, have started on Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo.
Refugees & Resettlement
The refugee resettlement program is funded by the U.S. Department of State, and has been operating formally since 1980. Each year, 75,000 – 80,000 refugees are resettled to the U.S. (the president determines the level). The U.S. is one of 72 countries in the world that accept refugees; only about one percent of the millions of refugees worldwide are ever resettled. Most, sadly, live out their lives in the refugee camps. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees
determines who is eligible for Refugee status based on its own definition and the persecution faced by people.
• Refugees admitted to the U.S. are legal residents – they will become permanent citizens. They are legally authorized to work, and finding work is a primary expectation of the resettlement program. They must even repay the cost of their transportation to the U.S. Resettled refugees are screened before entry for health and national security among other things.
• This year just over 1,400 refugees will be resettled to Buffalo by the four resettlement agencies (International Institute of Buffalo, Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Service and Journeys End). Resettlement provides refugees with the initial support they need to begin new lives (housing, health care, food, ESL, schooling, employment).
• Another agency, Jericho Road/Hope Refugee Center, runs a drop-in center for refugees who come to Buffalo from other areas in the U.S. or those who need help after resettlement. Across Buffalo many agencies are seeing, helping and working with this new population.
At a time when Buffalo is experiencing very little in-migration, new arrivals from the refugee and immigrant population are critical to our economic development, workforce, neighborhoods, homeownership, and entrepreneurial growth. The New York Times recently cited a study
that found half of all entrepreneurs in NYC are immigrants.