Imagine uprooting your family and starting over in a new country, hoping for a better life. Assimilating to a new culture, needing to learn a new language, just to survive day-to-day life.
For many of Buffalo’s newest residents, this is the reality. The city’s refugee population continues to grow, especially on the West Side, and it’s hugely diverse; Lafayette High School’s students speak more than 40 native languages. Though these refugees often make their way to neighborhoods where others from their country have settled, their voyage to Buffalo is rarely an easy one. Nor is life after their arrival.
“They may have fled their country because of civil war or ethnic insurgencies. Their livelihoods have been destroyed, so they fled to neighboring countries and then were resettled here to the U.S.” said Ba Zan Lin of the Burmese Community Support Center. “The main reason they come here is because we have four major resettlement agencies in Buffalo.”
One of those agencies is Journey’s End Refugee Services, a faith-based organization headquartered in the Tri-Main Building that serves 300-400 refugees annually. The agency offers refugee resettlement assistance, education, employment, interpreting and immigration legal services.
“We’re seeing a large number of people coming from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Burma, Bhutan and Cuba. We will be seeing a larger group coming out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” said Christine Lemonda, intensive case manager at Journey’s End. “There’s really a broad range, so we’re resettling clients that have no formal education and aren’t even literate in their own language who are farmers, but we also have people coming with Masters and PhDs in engineering.
“It’s a very friendly environment,” Lemonda says as she gives a tour of the main office at Journey’s End. “Usually you walk in and hear clients speaking dozens of different languages.” In the center of all the hustle and bustle is a giant grid, drawn on a markerboard with a schedule of incoming flights. It details where families are coming from and what assistance they will need.
For most refugees, this process isn’t simply a move — it’s a complete lifestyle transformation. “It really depends on individual cases, but most of these people have to spend at least three years in a refugee camp, and some of them actually lived their entire life there,” said Lin. “Some of the refugee children who are resettled in Buffalo grew up in refugee camps since day one, so they lived very monotonous, unfruitful, unfulfilling lives.”
Many come from rural areas and are completely unfamiliar with fundamental aspects of American life such as electricity, indoor plumbing or taking the bus.
The staff at Journey’s End help them assimilate, providing three months of assistance to each refugee from the moment they step off the plane. “We’re greeting the family at the airport, setting up a house, providing social services, education and healthcare,” Lemonda said.
Lemonda refers to Journey’s End as “a family,” and one that fits into a broader support group of churches and partner organizations that work together to help refugees assimilate. “We really take a holistic approach, which is why we have so many programs – it’s not enough to simply get someone connected with welfare,” she said. “It’s about seeing the needs and connecting them in-house.”
Journey’s End works with the community to do “Home Again” setups, where different churches and schools collect items and help set up a home for a family. They also partner with Lake Shore Behavioral Health and Deaf Adult Services to help meet more specific needs.
One of the newest additions to Journey’s End is the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP), a federally funded initiative targeted to refugees from rural backgrounds. RAPP teaches them to start their own urban farms and businesses with the goal of becoming self-dependent. The RAPP farm at Journey’s End includes a newly constructed hoophouse and many raised beds. Refugees also meet in a classroom at Tri-Main for two hours a week to learn everything from pest management to composting and how to manage the full-time commitment of running an urban farm.
“They’re really excited to be working on a farm and doing something they know how to do,” said Kyla Jaquish, RAPP program manager. “You don’t necessarily need to speak English to work with the land and use your hands and grow food.”
This farm is embedded in a residential neighborhood, which also enables the refugees to interact with the community.
“There are a lot of different perspectives out there,” Jaquish said. “A lot of the people who have negative perceptions of refugees have never really met a refugee and haven’t had the chance to talk to them and know that they...can be just as much of an asset to the community as they are. We’re really excited to see how the community members and the refugees can work together.”
Journey’s End also hosts events for native Buffalonians, to help increase awareness of the new residents joining their neighborhoods. “A Refugee’s Journey” allows visitors to speak with refugees who are now employees at Journey’s End, to learn about their experiences. “Buffalo Through Their Eyes” is a photography exhibit at CEPA Gallery featuring photos taken by refugees documenting their new lives in Buffalo. Journey’s End also hosts a quarterly “Global Feast” for community members, featuring a cuisine from one country/culture.
Overall, the staff at Journey’s End has witnessed the city of good neighbors staying true to its name. “I think in general the climate of Buffalo is a very welcoming city, which helps our families feel more connected and welcome,” Lemonda said. “I think our clients often rely on people around them for help, such as in an emergency they need help calling 911 or directions pointing them in the right place.
I would encourage Buffalonians to continue to reach out and be a friendly neighbor.”