Some might say that Buffalo was built by immigrants. In recent years, the City of Good Neighbors has continued to be a place of welcome. Refugee experiences shown on the nightly news may be painful, yet distant. Refugees arrive in Western New York legally, approved by the Department of State and supported by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
They carry difficult memories, perhaps a flicker of hope. Practically nothing else. They need to somehow resettle and begin to heal. For about 700 refugees each year, that's where the hospitality of Catholic Charities Immigrant and Refugee Assistance Program comes in.
Many refugees begin a new life at the program's rooms at the former Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary campus on Herkimer Street in Buffalo. Ann H. Brittain, program director, and two staff members, help refugees to succeed across language and cultural barriers.
Myo (Walter) Win has been here with his wife and daughter for eight years after resettlement from Myanmar through the United Nations. He has been a caseworker at Catholic Charities for six years. Win said that in his previous life, he was a ship's radio operator. When he heard about the job opening, he said that he wanted to be here because, "I love to work with people." He said he went to Sister Susan Bowles, SSMN, at his parish, Our Lady of Hope in Buffalo.
"I kept asking (Sister) Susan, and now I'm here," Win said.
As a caseworker, Win said his work is a challenge every day. He assesses families, finds apartments, sets up interpreters and meets people at the airport. Win will give new arrivals a brief home orientation.
"I show them how to use the stove, so they can cook," Win said.
He will give the newcomers time to acclimate. The next day, he starts the coordination of their services in earnest. He facilitates needed medical services, opens employment cases, and helps with stacks of paperwork, along with practical issues, such as finding the exact right bus stop. He said that 80 percent of his time is on the road. Win said that his job can be "24/7."
Now, when he is leaving Mass, his neighbors line up at the back of church asking him for help with their paperwork, he said. With a new Burmese store at his corner, a quick errand for a loaf of bread can lead to a slow return home. Win empathizes with the struggles of his clients, as it is relatively new for him as well.
"I had been waiting for my citizenship for almost three years, and last August, I finally earned it, with my wife, so we had a big celebration," Win said.
Faduma Mohamud's story as an employment counselor at the Catholic Charities program is quite different. In the United States since age 13, she earned a bachelor's degree in social sciences from the University at Buffalo, and has been working happily at Catholic Charities for two and a half years.
"There's never a dull moment," she said. "As you're opening the case, you see the client, you sit down with them, and ask them about their background, all that stuff, just to kind of have an idea of what kind of a person you're working with," Mohamud said.
Until her clients find work, their job is to work on their English.
"Regardless of whatever level (of English skill) they come in, we have our schools," Mohamud said. "They go in there from 8:30 in the morning till 3 o'clock. If they are parents, and they have to put the kids on the bus, they normally leave earlier or start later. Some of them work second or third shift, and come in the morning, and some of them leave early to go into work."
The Catholic Charities program will work with clients for five years. If they happen to lose a job, they will come back and be in the program again.
"We explain that any job, like most jobs, are entry-level, and that it's just the beginning," Mohamud said. "We explain they need that work experience in the United States to move further in life."
Brittain is a Western New York native, a former sociology teacher and lay missionary. When she was offered a position as an employment counselor with Catholic Charities, they told her that after spending four years in Africa, she could do anything. Five years later, she was asked to consider coordinating the program.
Not sure it would work well with her family life, she agreed to take it on a temporary basis. That was almost 25 years ago.
Brittain has seen much progress during her leadership. One highlight was moving into the Herkimer Street campus in 2011, where more people can be served. After supporting refugees in resettlement and employment, Brittain became aware of a need to educate clients for their final step, and started citizenship and civics classes.
Throughout the former elementary school building at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, teachers hold language, skills, and citizenship classes with adults. Many clients have never worked with computers before. They learn quickly, Brittain said, setting up emails for their children's school information, even to contact family in their native countries.
In one classroom, Rebecca Rotunda, English Language Learner teacher, moves between students and an interactive whiteboard, pointing out words on a weather map, asking questions. She explains Buffalo to about a dozen men and women, most anticipating their first experience of snow.
Brittain likes to say that 100 percent of their clients are success stories because of their courage and resilience after all they have been through. She would like to counter any perception that refugees are a burden. She said that they are working, buying homes, and starting businesses, such as stores and restaurants.
Volunteers are essential to the Immigrant and Refugee Program's mission. Students complete required service hours, then keep coming back. Former missionary sisters have volunteered and were able to speak Swahili to some clients.
Support from Bishop Richard J. Malone, in assigning diaconal service work, has also enriched the program.
"When he first came, Deacon Frank (Kedzielawa), wasn't sure that he wanted to work here," Brittain said. "Then he asked to come back. I think this kind of work gets in your blood. It is just so rewarding. It is an opportunity to live out the Beatitudes. Welcoming the stranger in our midst. We're all one village here."
For more information or to volunteer, contact the Immigration and Refugee Assistance Program at 716-842-0270.