The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations visited Buffalo’s refugee communities Tuesday and came away with a number of lessons for a nation that just elected a new president who has been harshly critical of Muslim refugees and immigrants.
Noting the economic growth that a wave of 14,000 refugees had produced in Buffalo, Samantha Power said at a roundtable at the University at Buffalo:
“Our country has a lot to learn from this ‘City of Good Neighbors’.”
Power, a longtime human rights activist and Pulitzer Prize-wining author, said she herself learned a lot during her daylong visit to the city, which has welcomed 14,000 refugees in the past 15 years.
First and foremost, she said in an interview at the end of the day, she was struck by the correlation between the growth of Buffalo’s refugee neighborhoods and “the sense of optimism and vibrancy” in the city now.
And during the forum at UB, she said that optimism is rooted in fact. Citing statistics first published in The Buffalo News series “From Burma to Buffalo,” she noted that job growth and business growth in Buffalo’s West Side and Black Rock/Riverside areas outstripped growth throughout Erie County in recent years.
“The facts don’t lie,” she said. “As the mayor said to me at the West Side Bazaar, Buffalo is moving. Buffalo is happening.”
The second lesson Power learned from her whirlwind day was that the Buffalo-area community has proved to be strongly supportive of refugees.
“Some segment of this home-grown Buffalo population is lending a hand in a beautiful and inspiring way,” she said, during the interview.
She cited the example of Jim and Nancy Carroll, longtime Buffalo residents who were profiled in The News’ “From Burma to Buffalo” series.
Eight Thankgivings ago, the Carrolls gave their leftovers to a refugee from Burma named Khin Maung Soe and his family, who had just arrived in Buffalo with virtually nothing.
The Carrolls befriended Khin Maung Soe and helped him as he built his meager savings to the point where he became a businessman. Eight years later, Khin Maung Soe owns two groceries and the Lin Restaurant – where Power had lunch with the Carrolls and the proprietor on Tuesday, enjoying “some of the best Asian food I’ve ever had.”
The third lesson Power learned on the trip came from the refugees themselves, who appear to be extraordinarily committed to helping each other.
“I’m not sure I’ve seen so quick a turnaround where the helpee becomes the helper,” she said, in the interview.
Power’s visit to Buffalo came against a backdrop of political change in America. As a top diplomat in an administration that has increased the annual number of refugees admitted to America from 70,000 to 110,000, Power will leave office on Jan. 20 when Donald J. Trump – who has, at times, called for bans on Muslim immigration and Syrian refugees – becomes president.
Power said she had been hoping to visit a city with strong refugee communities since June, when President Barack Obama began preparing to host a UN summit on the worldwide refugee crisis.
Staffers began planning Power’s Buffalo trip before Trump won the election, but she acknowledged in the interview that the trip “takes on a difference valance” now that the nation has elected a president who has criticized the Obama administration for welcoming Syrian refugees.
So along with being a listening tour, Power’s visit to Buffalo also served as way to push back against the notion that refugees may pose a security threat.
At both a morning discussion at Catholic Charities of Buffalo and the UB event, she stressed that all refugees are subjected to a rigorous, multi-level screening process that’s far tougher than any security check performed on any other foreigner coming to America.
That means it’s highly unlikely that any refugee will be a terrorist in disguise. “It is hard to imagine a more difficult way to get here than posing as a refugee,” she said.
Syrian refugees, she said, are merely escapees from a war-torn land, looking for a better life.
Power found proof of that point in a private meeting with Ayman Janno, his wife Avin Rasho and their two young children, who resettled in Buffalo earlier this year.
Janno told her that he couldn’t complain about the cold in Buffalo after escaping barrel bombs, chlorine attacks and bunker bombs in Syria.
“We are so lucky to be in the cold of Buffalo,” the Syrian refugee told Power.
Power said she chose to visit Buffalo not only because of the size of the refugee community, but because of its vibrancy and its impact on the greater community.
Noting that the refugee influx had stemmed Buffalo’s population drain for the first time in more than half a century, she said of Buffalo: “It’s one of the largest resettlement communities in the Northeast and we had heard a lot about the entrepreneurship of the refugee community here.”
She heard more about that from Mayor Byron W. Brown, a strong advocate of the refugee wave who met privately with Power at the beginning of the day and led her on a tour of the West Side Bazaar.
Brown said refugees will continue to be welcomed in Buffalo.
“The refugees who are here now have had a very good experience, and because of that they reach out to other members of their community, of their family, and say Buffalo is a good place to locate,” Brown said.
And the city benefits not only economically, but culturally, said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who joined Power at the roundtable discussion at Catholic Charities.
“Refugees and immigrants make life here more vibrant, more prosperous,” Gillibrand said.
Every refugee comes to America with a difficult life story, Power stressed. And she heard several of those life stories at the Catholic Charities event.
For example, Aung Kaung Myat, a refugee from Burma, noted that he arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand not knowing English or other basics of life.
“I was very ashamed,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to use a cell phone.”
But Aung Kaung Myat – who was also profiled in the News series – said he made a vow to learn English and quickly picked up modern ways.
Now he not only knows how to use a cell phone -- he sells them at the business he started three years ago, iT Garden on Grant Street.
“Refugees just want to work and support their own families,” he said.