Wednesday, April 13, 2022

West Side community welcomes Afghan refugees


Volunteers, from left,  Johanna Burke and Desiray Slaughter organize toys for Afghan refugees coming to the West Side

By Cait Malilay and Natalie Gravino

Laura Hill Rao was touched as she saw the box truck being loaded with household items that tend to be taken for granted: bedding, towels, toiletries, pots and pans just to name a few. 

With over 4,000 items collected by SUNY Buffalo State College campus community alone, the two trucks were off to the local resettlement agencies of the Western New York Refugee and Asylee Consortium.  

In addition to temporarily housing Afghan evacuees in a vacant dormitory, Buffalo State was invited by the consortium to participate in the January household supply drive.

“It was really moving and powerful to see how much our campus community was willing and excited to help,” said Rao, the director of the Civic and Community Engagement Office. “All the faculty in the math and science building kind of went in together and they must have dropped off like four van loads full of items that included everything for two whole households.”  

There were at least 250 people who were involved, including student organizations and families, but all were affiliated with Buffalo State.  

Buffalo is just one of the 19 eligible cities recommended by the U.S. State Department to accept refugees after President Joe Biden withdrew U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021.

Jennifer Rizzo-Choi, the interim executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo, said that the institute received 131 Afghan clients, including three babies that were born on U.S. military bases, during the evacuation phase in late August and early September.

“They’re certainly adjusting to their new life in the U.S.,” she said.


Jennifer Rizzo-Choi, on the incoming refugees:

There were nine military bases across the U.S. waiting to welcome the Afghan evacuees.

They arrived in Buffalo from mid-November to mid-February and were temporarily housed in hotels, Airbnbs or on a college campus.

Most of the families have now found permanent housing on the West Side and Cheektowaga, where there are large  Afghan populations, and the East Side.

“We typically try to resettle the clients on the West Side because there's a large refugee community there and the city is accessible in terms of business,” Rizzo-Choi said. “There’s stores, ethnic grocery stores that are great for them to be able to access without having to worry about transportation.”

Other resettlement agencies have found permanent homes for the refugees in Niagara Falls.

Housing is based on each family’s needs, but one housing challenge in particular, Rizzo-Choi said, is when there’s a larger family of 11 to 12 people compared to a typical family of four.

Nobody has opened up their doors for free, she said, so housing is paid through federal government funds.

Once families are settled in housing, the four resettlement agencies of the consortium help bring them to their appointments to handle legal documentation and continue adjusting to everyday life such as enrolling their children in school.

“Children under age 18 will be enrolled in the public school system,” Rizzo-Choi said. “There are specific programs in the Buffalo Public School System that are geared toward helping refugee youth succeed, to adjust and integrate.”

With the help from funding from Buffalo schools and resettlement agencies, the children receive academic coaches, which not only act as interpreters, but help them adjust to school life in America.

“We do have other employment and training programs and education programs that are typically available through what is called core resettlement services that we enroll all clients in, and that’s funded through the federal government,” she said.

Offered through the four resettlement agencies, this includes ESL classes, training on workplace culture, resume assistance, and helping them find employment. 

For stay-at-home parents who are unable to attend ESL classes, the International Institute has a program called the Hello Program, which also helps with other basic needs.

The West Side’s involvement in humanitarian crises is far from over.

With the Ukraine-Russia conflict, President Joe Biden announced that America will welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees,  and Buffalo State President Katherine Conway-Turner is eager to help.

“Unfortunately, crises continue to occur across the globe and now Ukraine is facing a situation that has already caused nearly 3 million people to flee the brutal, bloody and unprovoked assault by Russia,” Conway-Turner said. “Should any of these families ultimately resettle in Buffalo, our campus will extend any assistance that we can provide. As a campus that fully supports justice, equity, diversity and inclusion, we are committed to assisting those in need when we are called to do so.”