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REFUGEES AT SHELTER ARE GRATEFUL FOR EVEN THE SMALLEST OF GIFTS

EVERYONE IS THANKFUL TO FIND A GIFT -- any gift -- under the Christmas tree at VIVE La Casa.

But then, people who literally have nothing -- like everyone staying at VIVE -- tend to appreciate even the smallest gestures.

VIVE is a shelter for international refugees, most of whom are seeking entry into Canada. A few hope to stay in the United States.

The Rev. John Long, director of the shelter, said the refugees end up in the United States because they cannot get direct flights to Canada from their homelands or have not been approved for entry by Canada.

"So here they are, standing at the door. It is easier to get into Canada if you apply at the border," he explained.

The shelter, funded largely by foundations, religious bodies and caring individuals, is in the former St. Matthew's Catholic School, 50 Wyoming Ave.

Though many of the 80 refugees currently housed there are of faiths other than Christianity, Long said all are invited to participate in VIVE's Christmas celebration. Everyone will receive a present, with some coming from the News Neediest Fund, which last year helped more than 11,500 families with gifts and food for Christmas.

"It will be a festive day -- a party day -- for everyone who is staying here," said Long, a Presbyterian minister. "If they are not Christian, they are welcome to be part of it and they usually join in."

VIVE's current population includes Hindus from Sri Lanka, Buddhists from Tibet and Catholics from Argentina.

It also includes Galina Bondourova and her son, Andrei Bondourov, 16, Russian refugees who have been at VIVE for the past eight months. Since 1994, they have lived in either Canada or the United States. They currently are seeking immigrant status here.

Bondourova, who has two daughters living elsewhere in the United States, said Christmas has been different every year since the family left Moscow, where they never celebrated it.

Last year, while they were living in London, Ont., was the best because a friend, who was a social worker, bought them a Christmas tree and presents.

Bondourova expects Christmas to be special this year because she and Andrei will celebrate it with people from many other countries.

"Before La Casa, I never saw people from Sri Lanka and Tibet with different cultures and traditions," she said. "Now I have many friends from many countries. People who don't celebrate Christmas will celebrate it with us to see what it is like."

"I think this holiday will be fun," added Andrei, who hopes to find a CD player under the tree.

Bondourova has a Christmas wish too. She is praying the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service lets them stay in the United States.

If he were to write a letter to Santa on behalf of VIVE, Long said his Christmas list would be lengthy.

He would ask for money, because the shelter has to raise about $430,000 this year to pay its bills. Its total budget is $630,000, but Erie County provides $200,000. The rest comes from foundations, churches, charities and individuals.

Long also needs more volunteers. They are needed to help in the kitchen, help with maintenance, take on work projects and drive refugees to doctor and other appointments and to pick up things that people donate to the shelter.

Volunteers currently work in the office at the shelter, play with the children, teach English and help the nurse in the clinic.

The shelter also needs toys for children of refugee families, bedding, towels, and school supplies, including paper and pencils, workbooks and special materials for teaching English as a second language.

Food is always needed.

"We live on donated food," said Long.

People can leave nonperishable food and new, unwrapped toys at any of several drop-off sites, including The News.

Cash donations to the News Neediest Fund, which is administered by the United Way, can be mailed to Station C Post Office, 1245 Main St., P.O. Box 444, Buffalo, N.Y. 14209-0444. Money is used to buy perishables and holiday ham dinners through the Food Bank of Western New York.

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