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63 hurricane victims find safe harbor in Buffalo's schools

Kristian Rodriquez came to Buffalo to pick up the pieces of his life left in ruins by Hurricane Maria after it struck Puerto Rico.

He’s 9.

For him – and dozens more kids like him – returning to some sense of normalcy includes a stop at the Central Registration Office at 33 Ash St. in Buffalo, where he came last week with his grandmother to enroll in the fourth grade.

Since Maria devastated Puerto Rico last month, the Buffalo Public Schools have been preparing for an influx of students like Kristian, and – right on cue – arrivals have started to pick up.

In all, 63 students displaced by the recent hurricanes – including Irma in Florida and Harvey in Texas – have enrolled in Buffalo schools, said Mark Frazier, director of student placement and registration.

The largest number, 36, are from Puerto Rico, seeking refuge from the aftermath of Maria.

How many will come?

And will they stay?

It’s anyone’s guess, but the school district expects this is just the start.

“We’re seeing families that are coming here truly to rebuild,” said Finune Shaibi, supervisor of multilingual student placement. “Many that are coming here have faced extreme trauma, extreme loss. They have endured a very tumultuous last four or five weeks.

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“We’re seeing children sent with grandparents and aunts. We see them coming with no documents, just the clothing on their back,” Shaibi said. “We’re seeing them in need of basic essential items and, I think, the thing they desire most is a sense of normalcy.”

The region has strong ties to Puerto Rico. Nearly 46,000 Hispanics live in Erie County, according to the Census Bureau, and about 70 percent are Puerto Rican.

Buffalo, like other U.S. cities, has seen a steady increase in people from Puerto Rico over the past decade, as a weak economy and prolonged recession have forced many to the mainland.

Its schools, in particular, have noticed an uptick in Spanish-speaking students and logic says more are expected as they are able to get off the island to stay with friends and family in Buffalo.

“I’m sure we’re going to see a good number,” said Casimiro Rodriquez Sr., president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York. “The devastation that has occurred in Puerto Rico has been big and it’s going to take a while to recover.

“My biggest concern is that if the numbers begin to arrive in large quantities that Buffalo Public Schools aren’t prepared to support those arrivals."

The influx is likely to put pressure on the district’s bilingual program.

Once it realized the extent of the damage in Puerto Rico, district officials took stock of available seats in bilingual classrooms at six elementary schools. The count was 241.

“Our plan is to fill in these 241 seats,” Shaibi said. “Plan B is, if we exhaust all seats, we still want to offer bilingual instruction. We will look at raising the classroom cap to 30 and providing support to the teacher with another adult in the classroom.”

That would add another 150 available bilingual seats, bringing the total to 391.

Depending on the need, the district will follow with Plans C, D, E and F.

“This is asking us to project personal circumstances and how many people are displaced that also have a connections back to Buffalo,” Shaibi said. “We’re going in blind, honestly.”

Regardless, the district has rolled out the welcome mat.

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The spike in students from Puerto Rico started an effort to provide backpacks filled with supplies to students coming into the district from the island territory or overseas.

The project involves the Teacher’s Desk, a nonprofit that provides teachers with free classroom supplies, and the Alpha Kapa Alpha Sorority Inc., Xi Epsilon Omega Chapter in Amherst, which kicked off the campaign last week with a $200 check.

The backpacks and supplies are a small gesture, but an important one, said Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, president of the Buffalo Board of Education.

“We intend to let parents and children know they are welcome, embraced and will be supported and cared for,” said Nevergold, who helped spearhead efforts.

Any little bit helps, said Denise Kuilan, Kristian’s grandmother.

“People are in a really desperate situation so they are grateful for any support,” Kulian said through a translator.

As she registered Kristian for school at the Central Registration Office last week, Kulian, 43, spoke about her experience with Maria.

When the flood waters spilled into one room of their house, the family would move to the next room – and then the next.

Then they sought refuge nearby in a family member’s concrete shelter, where they rode out the hurricane until it stopped pounding away at their town of Morovis in central Puerto Rico.

When the coast was clear, Kuilan managed to make it to a functioning cell tower 25 minutes away where, by chance, she reached her daughter who told her to get to the airport. One-way plane tickets to Buffalo would be waiting.

Kristian, Kuilan and her husband made it out with the clothes on the backs and a couple backpacks. Her 21-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter stayed behind.

“The situation is very difficult,” Kuilan said through the translator. “There’s no electricity, no water. It’s even difficult to get food. Things are getting better very slowly.”

The family wants to go back to Puerto Rico some day – but not now.

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