Refugees turn hard work into better future through programs here - The Buffalo News

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Refugees turn hard work into better future through programs here

Refugees from Burma and Nepal sort products for shipment at American Sales Co. in Lancaster.

Over at Greatbatch Medical in Lancaster, an Eritrean forced to flee his country works as a welder.

At Neighborhood Health Center in Buffalo’s Riverside section, a former Iraqi translator for the U.S. military now works as a patients service representative. And in North Buffalo, two Nepalis, an Eritrean and an Ethiopian work at Surmet Corp., a specialty ceramics manufacturing plant.

These refugees were among more than 200 – primarily from Burma, Iraq, Bhutan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Iran and Congo – placed in jobs this year by the International Institute of Buffalo, one of four resettlement agencies in Western New York. The others are Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Service and Journey’s End Refugee Services.

Together they’ve resettled 1,300 to 1,400 individuals or families this year, and work with an additional 500 people who arrive on their own from another part of the country, or are seen at the Hope Refugee Drop-in Center on West Ferry Street in the city.

“The people we see have been, for the most part, trying to survive in very dire circumstances. They have a strong sense of loyalty that promotes retention in the workplace, and a strong desire to succeed in life now that they have the opportunity,” said Eve Williams Wilson, the International Institute’s employment program coordinator.

Suri A. Sastri, an Indian immigrant who owns Surmet Corp., on Hertel Avenue, hired three people recommended by the International Institute and said that “the results have been excellent.”

“The refugees are usually very good, and looking for opportunities to better themselves,” Sastri said.

“Their communication skills are usually not as good, but if we don’t give them an opportunity, how will they ever learn? Maybe other companies are reluctant to hire them, but I feel as a first-generation immigrant myself that, although I came with a Ph.D. and a green card, these immigrants are also looking for the American Dream.”

Sastri donated $10,000 in October to Buffalo Without Borders, the International Institute’s annual fundraiser, and hopes to start a training program at his technical ceramics development facility on Hertel. It would help refugees and others develop careers in hardware and advanced materials, where he said a shortage exists.

The International Institute’s resettlement project, a U.S. State Department program, works with refugees for up to five years after they arrive in the United States.

Refugees are eager to work, Wilson said. “You’ll see a welder working as a housekeeper because they want to be self-sufficient and do well here. They will continue to study English around their jobs, and then hope to get a job upgrade.”

“That’s what happened with the men at Surmet. Three worked as housekeepers in a hotel as their first positions, and each still keep their job there one day a week, as well,” Sastri said.

Job placement is one of the programs that the institute provides. Another is financial literacy, in which a staff member helps immigrants with such areas as budgeting, banking and filing taxes.

More than 200 employers representing manufacturing, service, food, retailing, and tourism work with the institute.

“When someone comes for help in employment, they go through a general preparation course talking about such things as the culture of work in America, relationships with bosses, how to read a paycheck, the importance of being on time and how to dress,” said Eva M. Hassett, the International Institute’s executive director.

“Then there is industry-oriented training related to janitorial, housekeeping jobs, customer service retail and dairy farm work. After training, we place them on a job, and follow up after placement with language support if necessary. As a result, I think our numbers are extremely positive in terms of employment and retention.”

At the same time, Hassett said, the International Institute is trying to get better access to higher-wage jobs for refugees and immigrants, fearing too many are working in lower-wage positions.

Hassett said the city’s newest arrivals are making great contributions to Buffalo’s future, and people, she believes, are increasingly recognizing that.

“I think Buffalonians are warm and welcoming to our newest neighbors, who have overcome many challenges to be here,” Hassett said.

“I think they understand how important this population is to our city’s future, in the workforce and in our neighborhoods.”


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