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Challenges of refugees are brought into focus

About a year into teaching refugees in Buffalo, Nick Pruyn decided to take his class to the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society Museum. Most of the refugees were from Burma -- people accustomed to living in the forest and making their own clothes.

"When we brought them there, we could show them that life here wasn't that different than theirs long ago," said Pruyn, a teacher of English as a second language in the Buffalo Public Schools. The refugees saw how Americans lived before the Industrial Revolution and "felt more connected to the country," Pruyn said.

Wednesday, Pruyn found himself back at the history museum on Nottingham Court as one of four panelists discussing the growing population of refugees in Buffalo. The program began with a screening of the 30-minute film "My City Limits: Buffalo, a Home for Refugees," followed by a question-and-answer session.

Overcoming the language and cultural barriers are just two of the many challenges refugees face when they come to the United States. This year, an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 refugees will come to Buffalo.

The film, made by local director Mike Sobieraj, chronicled the lives of several refugees who have resettled in Buffalo and are struggling to find their way in a new city. After the film ended, the four panelists described their experiences with refugees.

Many described the presence of refugees in Buffalo as a two-way street, as they and the community help each other, whether it's moving into housing at a time of population decline or working in jobs that most people don't want.

Ali Kadhum, president of the Buffalo Immigrant and Refugee Empowerment Coalition, has a personal connection to the local refugees. Kadhum, who was born in Iraq and came to the United States as a refugee in May 2008, witnessed firsthand the suffering that can occur abroad. His father, an activist against Iraq's former totalitarian government, was executed.

"It's really hard to think people just want to survive," Kadhum said in regard to those fleeing their countries.

Meghann Rumpf Perry, director of programs at Journey's End Refugee Services, said she has denied only two refugee cases in the last three years. "I say 'yes' because this [the refugee community] is a great community for Buffalo," she said.

It's a difficult process to come to another country, as a refugee has to leave the native land, enter a neighboring country and then make a refugee claim to be resettled, she said. The refugees also have to go through many screenings and interviews to be accepted to the United States. Perry said the shortest time she has heard for a refugee to be accepted is a year, while the longest is 18 years.

Still, 93 percent of the cases referred to this country are accepted, with refugees often settling in cities with high poverty rates such as Buffalo and Detroit, she said. Journey's End expects to resettle 300 to 350 refugees here this year, she said.

Looking back, Pruyn says, the visit to the museum was the best field trip his class took, as it allowed them to more easily understand American culture. But the most important aspect isn't what he did for the refugees, but what they did for him.

"The big thing I've learned is that they're inspiring people," he said. "When you see what it takes for them to get into this country, it's impossible not to work hard for them."