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An outpouring of help from the community for victims of fire

When Mustafa Abdo saw the lights of the fire trucks outside his apartment on Lafayette Avenue and then heard his neighbor banging on his door, screaming at him to get out, he scooped up his three young children and grabbed his car keys.

That was all he and his family had left after the fire consumed the building early on the morning of March 11.

"Everything is burnt," he said this weekend, as he got ready to check out a promising lead on a new apartment.

The smell of fire still lingers at the scene of the March 11 fire on Lafayette Avenue. (Maki Becker/Buffalo News)

Lourdes Pena never thought that when she smelled smoke that night and she, her husband, son and pet chihuahua evacuated the building they never would live there again.

In the days since, her co-workers at the Jewish Community Center's Early Childhood Center where she works in infant care, along with the families of the children she cares for, have helped her family get back on their feet.

Aisha Abdulle is heartbroken that the building that had become a welcoming home to her and so many others is gone, but she is thankful her husband and children escaped the fire while she was working her overnight nursing shift.

A week after an arsonist set fire to the Lafayette-Barton Apartments on the West Side of Buffalo, destroying all 36 units, the nearly 90 people who all escaped without harm are picking up the pieces of their lives.

A microcosm of the West Side, the residents came from around the world. Many are Somali-Americans. Some are Hispanic. There are a few African Americans, too. A couple of residents are originally from Nepal. A few senior citizens called it home, as did several families who sent their children to West Buffalo Charter School, just across the street. The apartments were spacious, well-kept and affordable, and many enjoyed the friendly, family-like atmosphere.

Apartment fire leaves dozens displaced, $2 million in damages

Now, the displaced tenants are scrambling to find new homes and replacing their clothes and household items. They also are being treated to the kindness and generosity of their community.

Fire victim Mustafa Abdo sorts through some of the donated items for the roughly 80 victims of last weekends Lafayette Apartment fire at the Jerico Road Community Health Center in Buffalo Saturday, March 18, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Event organizers Laila Ismail, left, and Juweria Dahir, right, sort through some of the donated clothes for the roughly 90 victims of last weekend's Lafayette Apartment fire at the Jericho Road Community Health Center in Buffalo Saturday, March 18, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

A fundraiser and donation drive was held Saturday to help the victims. At the Jericho Road Community Health Center on Barton Street, volunteers, many of them victims of the fire and their families, spent the day sorting through mounds of donated goods.

Later in the afternoon, the victims were invited to pick out the items they need. A slew of speakers were invited, including Mayor Byron W. Brown and Common Council Member David Rivera along with the firefighters who responded to the blaze.

The donation drive began when Laila Ismail, whose family members were displaced by the fire, set up a account last Sunday night to help all of the victims.

Ismail lost her home in a fire in Buffalo about 15 years ago when she was 12. Her pet rabbit ate through wiring in the attic, sparking a fire. She and her sister escaped on their own but firefighters rescued their parents who were trapped on the second floor.

She remembered how the community came together to help her family, and she wanted to do the same for these victims.

"I know exactly what they're going through," she said.

Within minutes of setting up the gofundme account, her friend Juweria Dahir, whose family also was routed by the Lafayette fire, contacted her, and the two began planning a donation drive. They set up a Google form to help them connect donors with volunteers willing to pick up and sort  items.

By Saturday, they had more than 50 volunteers helping, and mountains of clothing, shoes, toys, toiletries, bedding and household goods to restock the victims' homes. HEAL International, West Side Community Services and Jericho Road all got involved to help.

The community room at Jericho Road was filled with tables brimming with donations Saturday, as more people traveled from around the region to donate items. Jeanine Purcell of North Buffalo brought a carload of sweaters, jackets, belts and household items to give away.

"You need to feel each other's struggles and pain," she said, unloading her orange Subaru.

Tom Morse of Lancaster (left), his wife Ruth (center) and Sister Charlene Fontane drop off donations for the Lafayette fire fundraiser. (Maki Becker/Buffalo News)

Tom and Ruth Morse of Lancaster got a little lost on the West Side trying to get to Jericho Road with their donations. They ran into Sister Charlene Fontana, who also was bringing some clothes, and they found the Barton Street location together.

"We read about the fire in the paper," Tom Morse said, "and we wanted to bring stuff for the people."

Offering a prayer at Saturday's interfaith event was Imam Yahiye Omar of the Buffalo Islamic Community Center. His daughter was displaced by the fire.

He remarked on how the fire brought together so many people.

"This kind of tragedy has united us," he said before the event. "They are Christians, Muslims. This is solidarity. This shows us we are united."

Monetary donations still are being accepted through gofundme and at M&T Bank branches via HEAL International/ Lafayette fire fund.

Mariam Bakari gazed out at the tables and tables of items that strangers from all around Buffalo donated.

"Seeing this much support, it keeps us moving," she said.

Mariam Bakari was doing an online exam when the fire broke out on March 11. (Maki Becker/Buffalo News)

Bakari recounted how she was doing an online exam the night of the fire when she smelled smoke. She opened the door to the hall and saw smoke coming from the laundry room. She called 911 and grabbed her two children. Her family has been staying with in-laws as they try to figure out what their next step is.

After watching the firefighters battle the fierce flames that tore through the building and seeing the burned wreckage, now covered in ice and still smelling of smoke, the former residents marvel that no one was hurt. Firefighters were at the scene for more than 12 hours, and the damage to the building and contents was estimated at $2.5 million.

Abdulle can't help but think about what it would have been like to drive home from her shift at Erie County Medical Center that morning to find that her husband, Abdifatah Osman, her 2-year-0ld daughter, Maisara, and infant son Sufian, had been hurt or worse.

"Thank God for that, looking at the damage, that everyone came out of it as quick as they did," she said. "That right there – that's amazing."

Immediately after the fire, it was believed there was just one casualty – a pet parrot.

It was Pena's. She had left Elmer behind in its cage in the apartment kitchen, thinking they would all be back in a few hours. Elmer was a gift from a friend at the JCC who passed away.

She was at a Red Cross shelter at St. John's- Grace Episcopal Church on Bidwell Parkway when she learned the bird had survived.

A worker who was clearing out debris heard a noise from her apartment and found the bird. He tucked it into his coat and kept working another four hours before bringing it out.

"I was very happy," Pena said.

Many, but not all the apartment residents, were allowed to go back into the building for a few minutes while accompanied by firefighters to try to collect some items.

Pena said she had seven minutes in her apartment.

There wasn't much she could salvage.

"We lost almost everything," she said.

Abdulle had about 10 minutes in her apartment, and she was happy to find her wedding photos, flash drives of her children's baby pictures along with more keepsake photos that she had stored in plastic bags. Everything in the unit was soaking wet.

"And it reeked of smoke," she said.

But all the support she has gotten over the last week made her grateful for what she does have.

"When something like this happens, you're heartbroken. You're in pieces," she said. "You just need someone to say: It's going to be OK. Its' going to get better. That's what the community has done. Through prayers. Through donations."

Abdo feels as though he finally is coming out of shock. He had taken the week off from his computer and cellphone repair business and had spent the time trying to find a new home for his family.

"Everything. Everything in that apartment," he said.

The Red Cross gave him $625 in emergency aid for his family and he immediately went to Walmart where he bought clothes, coats and boots for his 5-year-twins and 3-year-old son.

"I had to get them all their uniforms for school," he said.

The twins, Mohamoud and Zahra, attend West Buffalo Charter. His wife, Fatima Sharif, is an assistant teacher there.

Abdo finally found just the right place for his family Saturday morning. He showed a photo of the yellow house on West Avenue that he decided to rent.

Mustafo Abdo shows a photo of the house he just rented for his family Saturday after they were displaced by the fire. (Maki Becker/Buffalo News)

"I didn't want to be in an apartment anymore," he said.

His kids, who asked all week what had happened to their apartment, were thrilled, he said. They have never lived in a house before.

Abdo was among the volunteers helping out throughout the week, picking up donations. Some people told him that he had enough to worry about, that there was no need for him to volunteer.

"I said: No, no, no. I have to be involved," he said.

As the last of the donors brought in their goods to the Saturday fundraiser and the final touches were being made for the event later that afternoon, he nodded in approval.

"Beautiful," he said. "This is awesome."


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