BUFFALO — Inside this city’s West Side Bazaar, a business development incubator set up to assist refugees and immigrants here, colors dazzle and appetizing aromas waft around every corner. The bazaar is a packed mashup of a Middle Eastern souk with an outdoor market of Southern Asia. Vendors and aspiring restaurateurs from some of the largest groups coming to this city in upstate New York — Burmese, Sudanese, Somalian, Nigerian, Iraqi — offer their native wares and foods.
Next to a stall congested with embroidered cloths and multicolored bangles from Burma, formally recognized as Myanmar, and across from a stall filled with brightly colored boubou caftans and dashiki tunics from South Sudan is Nadeen Yousef. She arrived in Buffalo in 2013, having left Baghdad eight years earlier to immigrate to the United States. Yousef, who is 43, fled Iraq in 2006, during the third war there in her lifetime. For six years, she and her husband, Emad Mageed, and their four children lived in Syria. When civil war broke out there, the family went to Turkey for two years.
The chance to get to the US came in 2013, when the United Nations refugee agency offered transit to America from Iraq; on the first leg, the family had to travel the 35-hour car ride back to Iraq from Turkey.
Yousef sells macramé jewelry and household goods at the bazaar when she is not working in the bakery at Wegmans, a mega-grocery store. She told of the hardship of traveling long distances to get to the US, in crowded cars and buses, while trying to make sure her youngest daughter, who is diabetic, had insulin, the right medicines and blood readings.
In Iraq, Yousef had been a French pastry chef and her husband a chef and restaurateur. He now works in the kitchen of a natural-foods store in Buffalo. Her profession as a pastry chef stems from time she spent living in France as a child.
“People assume we came from the [refugee] camps, and we’re [destitute], but that’s not the truth,” Yousef said of her family’s journey. “We do not all go to camps. Seventy percent of refugees are [financially stable]. We leave not because we are poor, but because if we stayed, we would die.”
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), of the approximately 12 million Syrians who have left the country since the civil war began, roughly four million live in refugee camps. Additional displaced people include those like Yousef, who originally came from Iraq, and Palestinians who have been living in Syria, some of them families that have been there since 1948 and were never given full citizenship.
Syria’s immediate neighbors — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — have taken in the bulk of the Syrian refugees. Some European countries have accepted Syrians, too, long before the influx that began this summer and continues unabated. In part, pragmatism drives this empathy, as countries lift stagnant or declining population through immigration, such as Germany. Young skilled workers can breathe new life into an economy the same way that the bustling bazaar in Buffalo has given new life as an international oasis to an empty big-box store.
US cities in the Great Lakes and the Rust Belt regions understand these dynamics and have been actively seeking to take in refugees since 2000. In Buffalo, the city has been inviting refugees and immigrants through resettlement to reverse negative population trends and replenish a key demographic age group, those 18-44 years old. Census data shows that for the last four years, 50 to 51 percent of those arriving in Buffalo fall into this age group.
In 2015, the US will allow about 70,000 refugees to seek asylum. Secretary of State John Kerry has announced that the number will increase by 10,000 in 2016 and another 20,000 in 2017, raising the total to 100,000 people. Refugees are often placed through the US Department of State, in cooperation with the UN refugee agency.
Of the 70,000 refugees accepted this year, roughly 1,500 will end up in Buffalo, with an estimated 500 other foreign-born people arriving by secondary resettlement annually, attracted to strong ethnic communities and economic opportunities in the city.
Other people, such as those on immigration visas or asylum seekers, come to the US through various channels. International students, for example, bring skills in science, technology, engineering and math, often contributing to the local economy almost immediately.
Four agencies in Buffalo — Journey’s End Refugee Services, the International Institute of Buffalo, Catholic Charities of Buffalo and Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County — have been charged with the care and handling of the new arrivals who come through the State Department and the UN, working with government aid for the first six months of the refugees’ residency in the US.
Government assistance stops then, however, leaving some refugees and migrants adrift amid language barriers, lack of cultural and institutional knowledge and many suffering from trauma.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, has placed Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh and Erie, Pa., on its “preferred community” list, recognizing that in these cities, “non-natives” have “excellent chances to achieve early employment and sustained economic independence.”
“It is noticeable throughout the Rust Belt-Great Lakes region, immigrants are spurring the economy,” said Eva Hasset, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, whose work with refugees includes addressing transition, health and employment as well as language issues.
Nadeen Yousef and her husband both worked with the Institute as they settled into Buffalo and began to apply for jobs. As she talks, Yousef glows with pride describing her oldest child, a 20-year-old college student and his studies; and showing a picture of her youngest daughter modeling in an American Girl fashion show.
No organization officially stops working with refugees when the government cuts ties with them. And many more organizations help refugees transition from arrival to integration. HEAL International, which serves refugees across a range of issues, is led by a University of Buffalo professor, Hodan Isse, who is also the first lady of Somalia.
Jewish Family Service leads a coalition of organizations in developing the Western New York Center for Survivors of Torture, to address the consequences of refugee trauma as well as political and state-sponsored torture that refugees might have experienced in their countries of origin.
Jericho Road Community Health Center started as a health center serving low-income patients, but it now operates two centers that cater to a large refugee population as well. The Center sees almost 12,000 patients a year, having branched out to offer language, cultural navigation, women’s programs and financial literacy. It recently merged with an organization devoted to housing those seeking asylum in Canada, which has an appealing immigration policy (and is right across from Buffalo’s border).
Before its current Conservative government, Canada was the destination of choice to many refugees who ended up in North America. (On Oct. 19, Canada voted the Conservative Party out of office in favor of the Liberal Party.)
Like many of the agencies serving the newly arrived in Buffalo, Jericho Road is nominally ecumenical. Its mission is driven by the need to “demonstrate Jesus’ love for the whole person.”
“While we were founded on Christian principles, we believe we can serve anyone and everyone,” said Jenna McCardle, the church and community liaison for Jericho Road. “The staff encompasses a multifaith background, and no one will ever be excluded because of their faith.”
Thomas Yorty, the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, said: “We subscribe to the Good Samaritan principle: If someone is hurting or in need, you help them. What religion doesn’t include this, the need to help others?”
The church started the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI), which is now a separate charitable organization embedded in the revitalization of Buffalo’s West Side. Like the other services around the city, it offers a range of programs from tutoring children to financial mentoring and business development, and the West Side Bazaar where Yousef has her stall.
One way to see how new and rooted people are blending with one another is to look at how goods are displayed in the bazaar. Each stall is marketed differently.
Ben Bissell, executive director of WEDI, recalled the drop in sales when business mentors and advisers tried to convince vendors to conform to a US style of merchandising. But when vendors were allowed to recreate their own cultural or national styles, sales increased.
“When you implant international immigrants and refugees into an existing culture, a hybrid cultures takes place that brings the best of both and creates something new,” said Faizan Haq, founder and president of WNYMuslims and a professor at the University of Buffalo. Like the other local agencies, WNYMuslims offers a spectrum of services, but it also provides more advanced programs like media production.
Economic development and financial literacy play an important role in each sector’s interaction among communities. “The citizenry of Buffalo is conscientious of the improvements it wants to do, and lots of people are making a sincere effort to bring new people into the community,” Haq said.
His director of community outreach, Julie Algubani, interjected during the interview with Haq, saying, “And give them something to stay for, opportunities and a network.”
Buffalo’s population, 258,703 for the city and 1,135,509 for the larger metropolitan area, is no longer shrinking, thanks partly to the refugees that these groups serve. Many of the organizations are beginning to work together to better enable this community in more innovative ways.
Integration into Buffalo’s wider community, however, is still a work in progress. Haq pointed out that the majority of the refugees are Muslims coming from regions now wracked with conflict like Syria and Iraq, and a conversation among the city’s four institutions initially settling refugees has not extended to include the growing number of organizations serving that population specifically.
Even the WNYMuslim offices reflect the growing pains felt by the community as a whole. Outside its neat suburban building, signs advertise the services of lawyers and certified public accountants. What is no longer posted is a sign for WNYMuslims. It was taken down after the organization received several “nasty” comments, according to Haq.
“Some people, most people, 99 percent of the people I’ve met, will smile and have welcomed us. It’s that one percent, that one person,” said Yousef, beginning to falter as she described the welcome she and her family have gotten in Buffalo. “That one who doesn’t smile — I still feel upset.”