On the outside, Buffalo Peace House is a cozy brick building on the lawn of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Athol Springs. On the inside, a community of international refugees and Western New Yorkers is coming to quiet life. Speaking directly to Pope Francis's call to host refugees in unused parish buildings, Father Ross Syracuse, pastor, and the social outreach group from St. Francis Parish welcomed Peace House in their former convent building.
"I don't think we can overemphasize the plight," said Mary Callahan, a grandchild of Ukrainian refugees. "They let my grandparents in. I don't know how they got here."
Callahan gained more understanding for living situations of detained persons after her career as a history teacher. She said that she worked in the education program at Wyoming Correctional Institute.
"I always thought that what asylum seekers needed was a safe, clean, homelike place to be," she said. "And it doesn't really exist. We wanted to start an alternate model."
Callahan and Father Roy Herberger, pastor of SS. Colomba-Brigid Parish in Buffalo, started by forming a board, and looking for a space. It took some time get to the St. Francis of Assisi site, and she said she was grateful that nothing needed repair except paint on the kitchen ceiling. The house can accommodate up to 17 residents. A dining room, family room and parlor in the convent's former chapel provide common gathering places. Bedrooms are set up for individuals or families. A complete baby room stands ready.
"The biggest family we had was a family of nine from Burma," Callahan said. "One mother and children. The husband stayed back because his mother was sick."
Callahan said that residents may be housed temporarily, as referred from the International Institute. The house also is open to asylum seekers through the Volunteer's Lawyer's Project. She said these are designated permanent residents because the asylum process takes more than two years.
The first permanent resident is Naima, an accounting student who has been in the United States for three years. She said that she lost her student housing when her family stopped paying because she refused to return to her native country for a forced marriage. She has "a really good case" with the United Nations for asylum, Callahan said.
"It is a blessing to be here," Naima said.
When Naima came for a tour with her laywer, she wanted to move in right away.
"I know there are a lot of people our there, just like me," she said. "It is like home. I want people to know. They will come here."