There’s a song in the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” called “Far From the Home I Love,” sung by a young married couple as they leave a turbulent pogrom for a new home abroad.
Today’s refugees – often called New Americans - don’t leave their home country with a song on their lips. They likely had an extended stay in a primitive camp at their country’s border. They may be separated from parents, children, or siblings. They witnessed war and atrocities that most American-born contemporaries have never seen. And yet, they leave with anticipation that a new home will bring peace and prosperity to their lives.
This is where Buffalo shines. Long known as the “City of Good Neighbors,” Buffalo and its environs have a well-developed support network that helps New Americans acclimate to a new country.
Buffalo was a designated resettlement site by the United States’ Department of State more than a decade ago, said Jessica Lazarin, director of Buffalo’s Office of New Americans, established by Mayor Byron W. Brown in 2015. This steady wave created a population uptick and a need for a designated City Hall initiative.
“The catalyst for Buffalo’s Office of New Americans was the fact that, between 2000 and 2010, refugees and immigrants represented one of the City of Buffalo’s largest, and fastest-growing demographics,” Mayor Brown said. “Given our city’s proximity to the Canadian border, our affordability and designation as a preferred refugee resettlement site, it was important for my administration to be proactive, and establish an office that could begin building relationships with the population, and assist them in accessing city services.”
Lazarin said the office’s initial purpose was to make sure the region’s multilingual population could connect with city services. The charge quickly grew to include collaboration within and outside City Hall.
It takes a village (plus a city, county, and state with pro-refugee leaders) to throw out a multilingual welcome mat. According to the New American Economy Cities Index, Buffalo earned a strong 3.25 ranking (out of 4.0) for immigrant integration, measuring government leadership, economic empowerment, legal and community support, and overall live-ability, ranking Buffalo 32 out of 100 resettlement regions. This is significant. While New Americans don’t select their resettlement region, they make the ultimate decision to become more engaged with their community and lay down new roots beyond the requisite 90-day resettlement period. Creating a welcoming, inclusive experience and helping new residents thrive helps create a sense of belonging and home.
Guidance from supportive services is both psychologically and practically necessary when you’re dropped into a new living situation with different mores, values, and languages to learn. Four agencies (International Institute of Buffalo, Journey’s End Refugee Services, Jewish Family Services, and Catholic Charities) provide refugees with services and guidance for their resettlement, which may include assistance with housing, employment, healthcare, learning a new language, and emotional support needed to adjust to a new culture.
Having a place to live builds an immediate sense of home. Karen Andolina Scott, executive director of Journey’s End Refugee Services said, “"Housing and jobs are still relatively plentiful in Buffalo, and refugees have taken full advantage of cheap real estate available in once-vibrant older immigrant neighborhoods like Black Rock, the West Side, and Riverside. Refugees are a large and integral part of Buffalo's much-touted renaissance and neighborhood revitalization efforts. Because of our very enterprising refugee community, people who had to literally reinvent their entire lives when they were resettled here, Buffalo has become a more welcoming place for everyone, making it a desirable place to live and visit again."
Long-time residents help create that bond, too. A high percentage of long-time Buffalo residents trace their heritage back to Western and Eastern European immigrants: our sense of ancestry still runs deep.
“People here know the value of the cultural experience,” said Eva Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo. “We know how people from other cultures fit into the workforce and the culture.” This fundamental openness to refugees is one of the reasons the region is growing again. Hassett said, “We are getting smarter that people who aren’t like us and are from different cultures are gifts, not problems.”
Many New Americans aren’t content to work for someone else. They want to own their own business: In 2014, 9.1% foreign-born Buffalonians were self-employed, according to the New American Economy, a bi-partisan research and advocacy organization. This is where Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI) steps in: its West Side Bazaar, a unique small business incubator, is home to 19 vendors – from restaurants to decorative artists – that has generated more than a million dollars in sales since its founding just a few years ago. This is a place where dreams can come true for an entrepreneur who was denied business owner status in a home country. “There’s one restaurant owner who waited seven years before she opened,” said WEDI executive director Ben Bissell.
Refugees bring another asset – their children – who will mature into the next generation workforce, homeowners, and civic leaders. Preparing these young people today gives them valuable life skills that can lead to more growth, stability, and innovation. There are 86 languages spoken by students in Buffalo Public Schools, particularly at the Newcomer Academy at Lafayette and International Preparatory School. Companies like AT&T recognize this, too: In 2018, AT&T funded “Coding Your Future,” a two-week introduction to computer technology for teen girls from recently resettled families. Amy Kramer, president, AT&T New York, said, “Our economy continues to transform at a robust pace – requiring a workforce with a focus on technological education and literacy – and computer science programs for students are vital to ensure that the students of today, despite gender or culture, are equipped to compete in the global innovation economy of tomorrow. For tech companies--like AT&T--to continue to be the world leader in innovation - it is critical to have the best and brightest talent in our workforce pipeline. Investing in today's students, particularly New Americans, is key to our success."