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Haitian refugees help bolster appeal for Vive La Casa shelter

He hasn't seen three of his five children since he left Haiti for the United States in 2001.

The Mafia was trying to kill him, he said, and escaping the country was the only way to survive. He has been living in New York and New Jersey for six years.

But now the man, who asked to remain anonymous to protect himself, must leave his family again.

The U.S. government denied his visa application and told him he cannot stay here. He and his two sons now will try to seek asylum in Canada, while his pregnant wife, a U.S. citizen, remains in Buffalo.

Wednesday, he and the 40 others living in Vive La Casa refugee shelter celebrated World Refugee Day -- an event sponsored by the United Nations to raise awareness of the struggles of refugees around the world.

Families gathered in the cafeteria to enjoy a Haitian-themed lunch and heard Junior St-Vil and Daniel Tillias, of Pax Christi Haiti, discuss the violence in that Caribbean nation. They appealed for help in ending the crisis by donating time and money to the organization.

Terri Mazza, executive director of Vive La Casa, said the organization chose to focus on Haiti of a recent jump in the number of Haitian refugees coming to the shelter.

Because of its proximity to the border, Buffalo attracts refugees from all over the world. Many end up in Vive La Casa, which provides free shelter and legal aid to displaced people seeking asylum in Canada.

"People from all over the world have heard of us," said the Rev. John R. Long, a former executive director and current vice president of Vive La Casa's board.

He said he has gotten letters and phone calls from people in need all over the world.

A 17-year-old girl who asked not to be identified said she was working with shelter staffers in hopes of moving to Canada to live with a cousin. Her mother brought her to the United States from Zaire when she was 12 after she had been raped.

When her sister became ill, the mother returned to Africa, leaving her behind with a family friend. When the friend got tired of watching her, she said, she ended up at Vive La Casa.

The United Nations estimates the number of refugees at more than 20 million worldwide and said the number of displaced people from the Americas and Africa is growing.

e-mail: aerickson@buffnews.com

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