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From Iraq to Elmwood, the tailor with an infectious smile

Tailors speak a universal language of chalk, tape, pleats and pins.

When Jon Eisenberg, 32, and Joseph Stocker, 35, wanted to hire a tailor for Bureau, their men's apparel shop on Elmwood Avenue, the staff at the International Institute of Buffalo suggested an Iraqi refugee from Syria – who happened to be a tailor.

Abbas Abbas, 57, was a third-generation tailor from Basra, the port city in southern Iraq. For 35 years, the skilled craftsman created men's suits, overcoats, even military uniforms, but he could not speak English.

The language barrier worried his potential employers.

Bureau owners Joe Stocker, center and Jon Eisenberg hired Abbas Abbas, left, part time about four months and hope to make it a full time position. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

 

"The first time we met him, it seemed we had little in common," Stocker recalled, "but the minute we brought out the measuring tape and started pointing at seams, Abbas lit right up. He knew exactly what we wanted."

After two initial rounds of interviews facilitated by an interpreter and including the assembly of a Juki MO-623 Serger sewing machine, Abbas was hired.

Placing immigrant and refugee workers in meaningful employment can be a challenging task, said Laura Caley, employment services manager for the International Institute of Buffalo. But the job training programs offered at the institute do more than secure employment. They build confidence, instill the cultural expectations of an American workplace and teach all levels of English as a second language.

Abbas was one of 680 refugees who resettled directly to Buffalo in 2017, down from 1,929 the year before, according to State Department statistics. Of that number, 186 refugees, including Abbas and his family of five, traveled from one of four Muslim countries: Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Iran.

When Abbas entered the country, he was given two resettlement sites: Las Vegas and Buffalo. Abbas chose Buffalo because a friend who lives here sponsored his resettlement. Abbas and his family now live in North Tonawanda.

"We can't promise job placement for every client," said Caley. "You may have been a doctor, but if you have poor English-speaking skills you'll be washing dishes for a while. It's a harsh reality."

The tailor

Abbas Abbas worked as a tailor in Iraq and in Syria until repeated violent upheavals forced him to flee. The family business started by his grandfather specialized in military apparel but also produced cultural costumes and everyday garments. His specialty was leather overcoats.

A decade ago, Abbas with his wife and four of his children fled Iraq to Syria, where he continued to work as a tailor. Two of his married adult children remained in Iraq.

In March of 2017 – on the day his third granddaughter was born in Iraq – Abbas and his family moved to Buffalo.

Abbas does not talk about the repeated cycles of violence that wracked southern Iraq and drove him and his family into Syria, where the upheaval intensified. He worries about the safety of his children and grandchildren who remain in Iraq.

"Too much conflict between political parties," Abbas said, with the help of a translator. "I wish to bring my all my children here."

Abbas continued to study English as a Second Language at the International Institute, 864 Delaware Ave., where classes are conducted five days a week, three hours a day by Buffalo Public Schools Adult Education teachers.

"He certainly is my only student who wears a fine suit to class every day," said Jennifer Connor, his instructor. "He is a warm person who is encouraging of others."

Connor's class of 15 students represents 10 countries. They speak 12 languages.

"My students have a sense of community. Everyone has a part. It says a lot for human connections. I want them to be able to draw connections between their past and present and be able to tell people about that."

Local non-profits that provide services to ease the transition for newly arriving refugees and immigrants have experienced funding reductions since federal legislation restricting immigration was enacted in 2017.

"It's been an interesting year with the restrictions on refugee settlement, which is why we opened it up to Puerto Rican hurricane evacuees," said Caley. "We had to be creative in identifying what foreign-born population we can help to fill the needs of employers who are calling us."

More than 300 employers have worked with the International Institute since 2015, said Caley.

"It seems very clear that immigrants make great employees," said Eva Hassett, executive director at the International Institute. "But now there are not enough immigrants coming into the country, which means that Buffalo should begin marketing itself to immigrant populations. We need to recruit."

The shop

Eisenberg and Stocker appear to be polar opposites.

Eisenberg towers over his business partner, tattoos peeking out from under his right shirt sleeve. He speaks slowly and laughs easily. His attire is comfortably upscale. Eisenberg is the sample size large.

Stocker's crisp suit is fitted and in perpetual motion. He bursts about the shop righting boxed gloves, slipping deftly through small spaces. Stocker speaks often and with energy. Stocker, 35, is the sample size small.

The two met at Cole Haan almost a decade ago, way before they began to think about going into business together.

"This was a pet project that turned into a business," said Stocker. "I couldn't find clothes that fit, so I started designing my clothes and found tailors to make them.

"People told me they liked my clothes, so I would invite them over to my house and design clothing for them. We'd sit in the kitchen. I like making people feel like they're not shopping."

That's why in the main room of the Bureau at 830 Elmwood Ave., the settee and accompanying chairs are deep-cushioned leather.

The shop's name is a story in itself.

Stocker walked around town asking strangers to repeat the names he and Eisenberg came up with for their shop.

Most names were discarded. "The Black Trumpet" sounded like a jazz club, people said. "Cult Cargo" was rejected, too.

"We were spit-balling ideas," said Eisenberg.

"Anything but Joe's Pants," countered Stocker.

Nearly four years after Bureau was born, the owners have an in-house tailor with an infectious smile.

"These two guys, they make me feel like I'm home, and that's helping me," said Abbas. "I can't go back to Iraq, so my only place to stay is here. I will probably spend the rest of my life here."

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