The recent wave of child refugees arriving on the Texas border has caused great consternation. Throughout the country, including here in Western New York, many have debated how to handle this influx of minors. However, in Buffalo we are not strangers to immigrants. Immigrants who flocked here at the beginning of the last century from Italy, Ireland, Germany and Poland helped build our city.
This summer we took our grandson on an industrial heritage tour of the city’s waterfront. He was very impressed by the towering grain elevators and by the story of the Erie Canal as a gateway for shipping to New York City and beyond. It reminded me of the important work of Irish immigrants who formed the backbone of workers in those grain silos. In addition, the present Canalside was the home of many Italian immigrants who worked on the docks and in the building trades.
Now I live near what was called “the Hooks.” Often I think about my ancestors who came here in the early 1900s. My maternal grandmother worked in her family’s tavern on Dante Place. Her future husband, newly arrived from Italy, saw her and proposed marriage immediately. His skill as a shoemaker on Tonawanda Street supported a growing family.
Around the same time period, my father’s parents arrived from Sicily with three small children. They stayed with relatives also on Dante Place. My grandfather tossed his documents from Italy into the Erie Canal, saying that he and the family were Americans now. He was so glad to be away from the hunger they experienced in Sicily. They permanently settled not far from here, having more children, including my dad.
When I was attending D’Youville College many of my friends lived in the tight-knit Italian community that was the West Side – their families thoroughly steeped in Italian ways. Another friend grew up in a German neighborhood, another in Irish South Buffalo and my future husband on Fillmore Avenue in Polonia. To me it seemed that immigration was not far away from our life experience. We still had family members telling the stories of their escapes from an impoverished “old” country.
Nowadays Buffalo has become a center for resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers from far-flung countries. Like our families they are fleeing poverty. Many are fleeing violence and war. One place they can find assistance is Buffalo Peace House in Hamburg. It is a site for shelter and legal representation for asylum-seekers, who by law are not permitted to work, so are dependent on the kindness of strangers.
Some asylum-seekers were tortured in their home countries. They cannot return because they fear for their lives. Peace House has partnered with resettlement agencies to temporarily house legal refugees.
In recent months there has been a great influx of asylum-seekers to the former convent that is the Peace House site. There is a waiting list and few other options for shelter. These folks have legitimate claims to seek asylum, but it takes a long time. If more of us, the descendants of immigrants and refugees, can provide assistance, then Peace House can open its arms to more arrivals. Just like those days long ago when immigrants found shelter and purpose here.