Refugee launches business, helps community with bottle return

In Buffalo’s West Side Burmese refugee community, entrepreneurs are finding ways to help people adapt to life in the United States.

Zaw Win is one of those people. His story of resilience embodies the spirit of those working to make Buffalo home. And one of those ways is by making it easier for refugees to make money returning bottles.

Win’s path to Buffalo was fraught with hardship. Hidden under fishnets with 11 other individuals, Win thought he was being taken to Malaysia for a new job and a better life. Shortly did he learn his “carrier” who was supposed to bring him and the others from Thailand to Malaysia sold them to the boat owner, who forced them into hard labor at sea for 45 days.

A former political prisoner turned into an indentured servant; Win was ready to jump into the sea with the intent of ending his life. Upon imagining his mother’s face and his friends from prison, he took a step back. He persevered through forced labor until he and the others were dropped off to Patani, a region in the northern part of the Malay Peninsula.

He and the others devised a plan to go to Bangkok, where Win lived as an undocumented worker for five years. Fast forward to 2005. Win arrived in Buffalo as a refugee. Working at Brunner International in Medina, a manufacturing job was no match for his inner entrepreneur.

With the combined effort of Win and librarian and artist Barrett Gordon, the two created what is now known as the Westside Art Strategy Happenings (WASH) Project, a laundromat, study spot, and art space. Operating since 2012, the WASH Project is still thriving. Win also assists other refugees with car insurance, Medicaid, and providing translation services. He is a proponent of human rights and political activism.

Win’s newest business venture, Westside Value Redemption located at 327 14th Street is yet another endeavor to serve the refugee community. After many refugees had told Win about their experience being bullied at other bottle redemption centers, he decided to create his own in their backyard. The business launched in February.

Win provides incentives for customers to collect more bottles through his award program. Whoever redeems the highest quantity of bottles within a month gets a $50 gift card.

“I opened the bottle redemption shop in my area to protect them from being bullied,” he says.

Read more articles by Sara Ali.

Sara Ali is a freelance journalist and has written for various publications throughout Buffalo. Her work primarily focuses on Buffalo's vibrant refugee and immigrant community.
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