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Erie County’s ‘New Americans’ panel aims to foster immigrants’ trust

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Monday that more needs to be done to bridge the divide between the county’s growing immigrant community and a county government bureaucracy of roughly 4,000 employees.

More than 6 percent of the people who live in Erie County are foreign born, including an increasing number of refugees who don’t know what services county government provides and may not be getting the help they need because they don’t know where to turn. Many who do come to the county for help face other barriers to getting the assistance they require.

“We want people to understand it’s their government,” Poloncarz said.

To that end, Poloncarz established a New Americans Committee that met for the first time Monday.

“Too often, people come into this country, particularly areas that are war-torn, and they don’t trust the government,” Poloncarz said. “They don’t even want to talk to someone associated with the government, and we want people to really understand we’re here to offer services, especially when it comes to health and human services.”

The committee is the first step to establishing trust between county government and immigrant residents, he said. Part of the group’s role will be to offer the county feedback on what barriers exist that prevent immigrants from getting the help they need.

Poloncarz got some immediate feedback Monday.

Ali Kadhum, president of the Iraqi-American Society, said he thought it would be helpful if the county hired more people from the immigrant community who could help provide translation services and build more “cultural competency” within Erie County. He also said posting multilingual signs in departments that regularly interact with the public would be useful.

Julie Kruger, an immigration lawyer, said that many immigrants who are trying to attain U.S. citizenship need to access certain county documents but have great difficulty doing so.

“I’ve grown up and lived in this country and speak the language and have a law degree and can’t figure out the process,” she said. “How is somebody who just moved to the county supposed to?”

“That’s not reassuring,” Poloncarz responded.

Several others said they would like more information about county job programs that could help immigrants go from being perpetual recipients of Social Services benefits to people who can work and gain self-sufficiency.

Gamileh Jamil, executive director of ACCESS of Western New York, an Arab-American Community Center, said immigrants should be connected as quickly as possible with work programs that can wean them off of government dependency.

She used the Yemeni community in Lackawanna as an example, saying that while many new immigrants wish to be contributing members of society, the longer they rely on public benefits, the more likely that second and third generations will count on these benefits as a way of life.

“It’s almost like they’ve lost their integrity,” she said.

Jamil also suggested some type of simple survey might also help identify the most pressing needs of immigrants who require county assistance.

Language barriers, the lack of translated county material, cultural miscues, and a general sense of fear of government officials by many new immigrants are all problems that need addressing, said committee attendees.

Eskinder Tefera, secretary for the Ethiopian Community Association of Greater Buffalo, also pointed out that the needs of new immigrants are different than the needs of those who have lived in Erie County for a number of years.

About seven community members, along with county, city and refugee services representatives attended Monday’s meeting. Kadhum said the committee could improve its community outreach if more immigrant representatives are invited to attend. For instance, the only African immigrant representative attending Monday’s meeting was Tefera of Ethiopia.

“If this is created for new Americans, we need more new Americans here,” Kadhum said.

Organizers, however, said that while they welcome more input, they don’t want the committee to be too unwieldy to accomplish goals.