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Sean Kirst: Relentless sisters harvest hope for refugees on West Side

Sister Kathleen Dougherty expected this phase in her career to involve peace and quiet.

She had already retired three times from teaching jobs in South Carolina and Western New York. In 2015, she moved into the new St. Mary's Center on Buffalo's West Side, where her fellow Sisters of St. Mary of Namur needed someone who could play the organ.

Dougherty planned on helping prepare the daily liturgy. She figured she'd have a little time to breathe.

She was kidding herself. At 82, taking a breather isn't in her nature.

"Once a teacher," Dougherty said, "always a teacher."

She leaned on a counter Thursday  in a large meeting room, where a coalition of sisters, community volunteers and students from local colleges offered one-on-one tutoring to children and teens from the nearby Somali Bantu refugee community.

Photo Gallery: Relentless Sisters harvest hope for refugees on West Side

Downstairs, in what used to be a couple of storage rooms, Sister Roberta Thoen supervised a similar effort with younger children, many of kindergarten age.

About 40 refugee boys and girls show up four times a week, after they finish school. The program also sparked the creation of a Somali Bantu Community Farm in East Aurora, where volunteers work side-by-side with refugees in harvesting fresh produce they take back to the West Side.

Dougherty, a Kenmore native who took her vows 64 years ago, is the lightning rod, even if she downplays her role. She emphasizes that both initiatives are supported by dozens of people who freely give up their own time.

Hunter O'Dell, left, a volunteer from Daemen College helps Halima Somo, 10, with her fifth grade math at the Somali Bantu afterschool program at St. Mary Center. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

Still, just about everyone in the place agrees with Jonah Weiss, 18, a Canisius College student whose casual suggestion to his mother galvanized the forces that led to the farm.

"She's the backbone of this, the one who keeps it rolling," he said of Dougherty.

In 2015, the sisters relocated to their center on Lafayette Avenue, alongside a brick building that once served as Annunication High School, the result of a hard decision to leave their old Mount St. Mary motherhouse. Their new center offers much-needed residential space for a handful of members struggling with their health.

It is also a civic staging point in the neighborhood they've traditionally served. The sisters could have settled in the suburbs, Dougherty said, "but we wanted to commit to something."

That cause became helping refugees.

"They change lives," said Mahamud Mberwa, a liaison to the Somali Bantu Community Organization of Buffalo.

His son Hashim, 13, was at St. Mary's Thursday, quietly learning the difference between essential and non-essential elements of a sentence from Nate Krueger, 17, a volunteer from Canisius.

Most Somali Bantu children were raised in refugee camps, Mberwa said, without much traditional schooling. In Buffalo, they often share classrooms with American children of their same age. Without the tutoring they receive at St. Mary's,  it would be easy to fall behind – and tempting to give up, Mberwa said.

Dadiri Muya, 11, remembers that feeling. He studied Thursday with Sister Corinne Yarborough, a sister nicknamed "Smiley" for reasons she quickly makes apparent. In his early days on the West Side, Dadiri said, he couldn't speak English. He felt utterly overwhelmed.

"It was very difficult," the child said.

His breakthrough word in his new language was "apple," after a friend showed him an apple on a computer and then sounded it out. The moment was like opening a door. Sounds and structure began tumbling together in English in a burst of light and revelation.

Dadiri often looks outside with wonder as traffic rumbles down the street. His goal is to someday "drive the trucks, the big trucks, the tractor trailers, and to make enough money to have a house and a swimming pool."

He puts words to those dreams at St. Mary's, where Dougherty at one point told herself she was ready to slow down.

Mahamud Mberwa, farm manager and a board member for the Somali Bantu Community Organization in Buffalo, walks with Sister Kathleen Dougherty of St. Mary Center at the Somali Bantu Community Farm. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

"She's resilient and nothing stops her," said Sister Pat Brady, director of the center for service learning at Canisius.

In 2015, a member of the Somalian community contacted Brady and asked for assistance with an afterschool program at a little storefront on Grant Street.

The idea was helping 10 children, once a week. That number quickly doubled, and then tripled. Dougherty, recruited by Brady as a volunteer, realized the storefront space wasn't nearly big enough.

The answer was to open the doors of their own collective home. She led an effort to empty out a couple of storerooms at St. Mary's Center, and the sisters sent out word that they could use some tutors. Area colleges responded. Dougherty welcomed students from Daemen and D'Youville, as well as Canisius.

The afterschool program triggered another effort of deep neighborhood meaning. It helped create the fledgling Somali Bantu Community Farm, in East Aurora.

Kristin Heltman-Weiss, an educational therapist, came to the center after Jonah, her son, said it could use her skills. She and Mberwa became friends. One day, she asked him to list his community's greatest needs.

He told her many Somali Bantu elders were farmers before they were driven from their homes. He said they missed the feeling of soil in their hands, the chance to use their own food to prepare meals.

Amid the noise and concrete of the city, he said, they were dreaming of a farm.

During the harvest at the Somali Bantu Community Farm in East Aurora, Faduma Bilal harvests greens while her son Yahay Abukar, 2, follows behind her. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

Heltman-Weiss is an organizer of an informal group of friends called the East Aurora Huddle. The members include Lynne Kerr and her daughter Bobbie, who brought Mberwa's wistful vision to Lynn's ex-husband, Dr. Christopher Kerr, chief executive officer at Hospice Buffalo.

Kerr owns a working horse farm in East Aurora. To him, the answer was simple:

He could convert three paddocks into vegetable gardens that would feed 200 families.

"I thought it was a privilege," Kerr said.

Everything came together. Last spring, on the first day of planting, Heltman-Weiss recalls how a caravan of cabs carried many Somali Bantu families to the farm. Dougherty was often there, keeping watch, seeking refuge from the sun beneath a big straw hat. A neighbor, Dr.  Peter Kanter, told them they could use another eight acres for farming next summer.

This year, from July into September, volunteers harvested dozens of carloads of fresh vegetables and greens, then brought them to Buffalo. While grownups focused on the crops, volunteers played games with little Somali Bantu children or simply allowed them to run in open fields. Boys and girls who had spent their lives coping with refugee camps and a new life in America could finally, in a safe place, have a little fun.

As for the adults, Faduma Bilal, a young woman who helped with the harvest, said the farm intensified her knowledge of her own traditions. Somali Bantu elders often say "how we have within us what it means" to raise and prepare their own food,  she said.

"I couldn't understand," Bilal said, "until I saw with my own eyes."

The tutoring and farming demand high energy, generated by a group of sisters well beyond standard retirement age. Many in the order, hard at work on the West Side, are in their 60s and 70s — if not their 80s, like Dougherty herself.

Yet Yarborough, her fellow sister, looked up from reading with 11-year-old Dadiri to say the commitment is never a burden.

It is the opposite.

"This gives me life," Yarborough said.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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