The spirit of Christmas is thriving in Buffalo. Joyous, selfless and unbounded, that spirit breathes in the affection that Western New Yorkers have showered on the Burmese refugees who are making new homes in this city.
Some of their stories appeared as short portraits in the mural that reporter Jerry Zremski produced over the past several weeks, depicting the lives of these refugees. As overwhelming as the challenges can be for these newcomers – strangers in a strange land – they have friends who make it their mission to clear the path toward integration. If their stories aren’t as dramatic as those of refugees who give up everything they know to start over in a place they may never have heard of before, they are inspiring and heartwarming nonetheless.
These are people who go out of their way to help, befriending people who are often isolated by language and unfamiliarity. They make a profound difference in the lives of these uncertain new residents and demonstrate that the Christmas spirit is not a seasonal affectation.
They come from all parts of Buffalo life: doctors, teachers, police officers, churchgoers. They are givers, seeking nothing more than to offer a hand where a hand is desperately needed.
That’s what Jim and Nancy Carroll began doing when they first met Khin Maung Soe and his family at Thanksgiving 2008. Seeing that the family’s refrigerator was bare, they notified their friends at Hamburg Wesleyan Church to provide not just food, but furniture.
Now the families are friends, and the immigrants have their own business, Lin Asian Grocery on Grant Street. The Carrolls helped get that up and running, too.
Kelly Cooper gives her all to the refugee students she teaches at Lafayette High School. On Mon National Day she dresses in the colorful costumes of Burma’s ethnic minorities and dances with some of the refugees. In addition to teaching, she helped deliver a refugee woman’s baby, tended to the nephew of a Burmese freedom fighter in Washington and then started volunteering at Journey’s End, a refugee resettlement agency in Buffalo. There, she met the pony-tailed Soe Maung Maung, a Burmese volunteer. Today, they are married.
Or, think of Mike Laun. At first, the Buffalo cop just wanted to become familiar with the community of immigrants, the better to do his job. He did. He got to know them, and then he adopted them, volunteering at Jericho Road, the community health center, and helping to run Bundle Up Buffalo, an annual giveaway of winter clothing. Still not sufficiently close to those he sought to serve, he traveled to Burma, where he helped some more, distributing supplies at an orphanage – supplies that he had collected.
One refugee family was so appreciative of the health care they received, they named their newborn son for the doctor who helped them.
Glick Kyaw is the namesake of Dr. Myron Glick, who founded the Jericho Road Community Health Center. Glick’s goal was to provide medical care to anyone who needed it, regardless of insurance coverage. Since its establishment in 1997, the center’s West Side location has morphed into what is accurately referred to as “Little Burma.”
The center has expanded its mission, offering English classes, financial literacy training and support for those buying homes. It’s also created the Hope Refugee Drop-In Center, a place for problem-solving of all sorts.
Like Laun, the Buffalo policeman, Jordan Pescrillo also traveled to Burma. But the 26-year-old Amherst native wasn’t just visiting. She stayed, teaching English in Mae Sot, a border town just inside Thailand.
One sweltering day last summer, she ended her class in a way most teachers don’t. “I love you,” she told her students. They responded, in unison and in kind.
Love seems the best way to describe it. And there’s a lot of it going around where Buffalo meets Burma this Christmas season.