When refugees arrive to a new country, they often have no connections and may be living in a culture they do not understand. They may feel on the outskirts of their new society and not able to contribute.
For Rubens Mukunzi, who arrived in Buffalo from Rwanda in 2013, the effort to assimilate into his new home led him to start his own newspaper and cleaning service. Both work toward bringing refugees a voice and work opportunities.
Life has always been rough for Mukunzi. He was 15 years old in 1994 when the Rwandan genocide occurred, leaving more than one million dead. After completing high school and college, Mukunzi worked for a radio station, and began hosting a morning show in 2005. He also created a newspaper in 2009 that focused on Rwandan educational issues.
But in 2010, Mukunzi started getting threatening messages due to the paper’s criticisms of the country’s education system. Rwanda restricts freedom of speech when criticizing the government. By 2013, it had become too dangerous for him to remain in the country. He arrived in Buffalo at the behest of a friend who lived in the area.
“It’s a city that’s not big or small, where you can restart your life as a refugee,” Mukunzi said.
Although Mukunzi could speak three languages, including French and Swahili, he did not speak English. He took English classes for six months with other refugees at the International Institute of Buffalo, and obtained a job with Clean Sweep Janitorial in 2014. He was promoted to supervisor after nine months.
As Mukunzi struggled with learning a new language and culture, he saw that other refugees had the same struggles.
“How can we resolve these challenges? How can we be connected in the community?” Mukunzi asked. “Some people don’t understand why there are even refugees in Buffalo. We needed a voice. A bridge between citizens and people coming here from outside of this country.”
Out of that idea, the Karibu News was born in 2015. Named after the Swahili word for “Welcome,” it publishes stories in several different languages, including Spanish, French, Arabic, Burmese, Nepali, and Swahili. The stories highlight the varied ethnic, religious, and refugee communities in Buffalo, featuring festivals and local refugee efforts, and informing immigrants about local politics. Initially published through the Buffalo News, it has an average circulation of 10,000.
The nonprofit organization African-American Baobab Inc., now oversees Karibu News, and Mukunzi envisions the organization providing other services for refugees and serving as a meeting ground where immigrants and citizens can learn from one another.
“Baobabs are big trees in West Africa,” Mukunzi said. “They’re a place where people would sit down and speak about issues. We’re looking to bring different cultures together and see what we can learn from each other.”
Mukunzi still worked for Clean Sweep while running the Karibu News, until the summer of 2018, when he quit to form his own cleaning company, Madiba Janitorial Services, LLC.
“I always see myself as an entrepreneur. I don’t want to work for anyone else,” Mukunzi said.
Madiba is a nickname for Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who was a leading figure in the fight against apartheid. It is also the name of Mukunzi’s seven-year-old son, the only family member who was able to come to the United States, doing so this past June. Mukunzi’s brothers, sisters, and father are still in Rwanda.
Madiba has two part-time employees, both refugees, including one who is also from Rwanda. Mukunzi’s goal for Madiba is to hire refugees so that they have work experience and money.
“Most of them don’t even know how to get a job, or that they have a right to work,” Mukunzi said.
Vicki Ross, the executive director of WNY Peace Center, has worked with Mukunzi as Karibu News covered events the Peace Center put on. The Peace Center has been involved in efforts supporting refugees, since they are becoming marginalized on the national stage. That work relationship led Ross to write about the Women’s March in Karibu News.
“It’s thrilling to work with refugees,” Ross said, adding that the presence of immigrants adds vibrancy to Buffalo. “We can learn so much from those who live a different way.”
Mukunzi believes that Buffalo has a good system in place to help immigrants start businesses. He highlights the West Side Bazaar as one example, where immigrant, refugee, and low-income individuals own and operate food and retail businesses. Local banks, the Westminster Economic Development Initiative and 43North have provided refugees loans to start their businesses. Mukunzi received $10,000 from 43North in 2016 to help operate the Karibu News.
From personal experience, Mukunzi sees that refugees who operate their own businesses are better able to connect with their new homes and become more independent.
“Imagine someone who came from Burma; they only speak Burmese,” Mukunzi said. “No one will come to your house. It’s tough to make connections. When you open just a small shop, people will buy your product. Not just Burmese people, but regular citizens. Making connections, making money helps them become more integrated in the city.”