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Influx of refugees presents a challenge, but they are helping Buffalo

Some will call it a problem, others a mistake. What the influx of refugees to Buffalo really is, though, is a challenge and an opportunity. Immigrants have always been a harbinger of growth in this country; more devoted, in some ways, to the ideals of this country than those who would keep them out.

It’s hard not to see Nay Htoo in that light. A refugee from Burma whose compelling story is told in today’s editions of The News, the 41-year-old has lived a life of horrors few in this country can begin to comprehend. Yet he is here, operating a forklift at Pallet Services in Lancaster, driving family and neighbors to Karen Baptist Church off Bailey Avenue and working to create a better life for his three children.

It’s the American story, retold. When English settlers landed in Massachusetts and Virginia, that’s what they wanted: a better life. It’s what Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants wanted when they disembarked at Ellis Island.

Those arrivals created challenges, too, and also resentments. Ultimately, though, they made the country better by renewing it.

To be sure, the arrival of thousands of refugees in Buffalo is creating challenges. Nay Htoo and his family didn’t even know how to shop for food when they first arrived, yet they needed to eat. He and his wife, Hser Gay Moo, don’t speak English, though they would like someday to become American citizens.
Resettlement agencies are helping these new residents build new lives here.

The challenges appear in macrocosm, too. The State Department says it had settled 4,665 refugees from Burma in Buffalo as of Sept. 30, but city officials say the number is around 8,350 because of the wave of “secondary migrants.”

That has an inevitable social impact and nowhere does it create more stresses than in the Buffalo schools. As a story in Wednesday’s editions of The News reported, public school districts in the region saw an overall drop in enrollment of 4 percent between 2010 and last year. Yet, over the same time, Buffalo public school enrollment has risen by 6 percent, due in part to the influx of refugees and immigrants.

Stress? If you’re a student who understands little, if any, English? If you’re a teacher whose performance standards don’t take account of your students’ challenges? If you’re a principal responsible for the success of your school?

Yet, the difficult challenges are also the seeds of promise. These students represent the better future for which immigrants and refugees have taken on the risks of starting all over in a new country. Those students will learn to speak English. Some will go to college. They will become sturdy thread in the fabric of a stronger, more diverse, more interesting city. They will pay taxes, support their neighborhoods and produce new generations of children for whom Buffalo is the place they will always call home.

This is all worth doing simply because Buffalo is home to extraordinary people – tough, resilient and caring. It is known as the City of Good Neighbors for a reason. Nay Htoo has learned that truth firsthand. “Buffalo is a good place for us,” he told reporter Jerry Zremski. “The family is here, the friends.”

But this is one of those ways in which the city does well for itself by doing good for others. Call it enlightened self-interest. Buffalo is building a stronger future by welcoming immigrants and refugees from places that give meaning to the word horror.

The challenge of accepting refugees is real and, in an especially dangerous world, needs to be pursued thoughtfully. But the nation has always renewed itself through immigration, and if that process has always been fraught with stress and even hostility, it is incontrovertibly the story and strength of America. Buffalo can be proud of playing a prominent role in that continuing and hopeful tale.

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