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New public access channel proposed for Buffalo's immigrants, refugees

Yemen native Nourah Ali is fluent in English and often helps American newcomers communicate with the world outside their Buffalo community.

Almost daily, she serves as an Arabic interpretor for family members, friends and neighbors. She translates verbal conversations for them, deciphers important documents and other written information and helps them navigate government agencies, social service organizations and other helpful resources.

So when Ali heard that city lawmakers want to create an additional public access channel specifically geared to Buffalo’s burgeoning immigrant and refugee communities, she was thrilled.

"A lot of people, they want to know things, but they don’t have people who can translate for them and they won’t go to some places because they don’t have people to translate for them. They are so shy and don’t understand English, but it would be great to have information interpreted for them," said Ali, who came to the United States in 1990, returned home and then moved to Buffalo in 2001.

The new channel being proposed would be a forum on which newcomers could post their own information while also being able to access general information in their own languages, such as Burmese, Karen, Nepali or any of the other 80 languages now spoken in Buffalo.

The new channel would be in addition to the three existing Buffalo public access TV channels currently offered by Time Warner/Spectrum: Public Access Channel 20, Think Bright Channel 21 and Government Access Channel 22.

The cable company would have to create the new station, Council members said.

"I think providing that vehicle to our immigrant community will be another way to get the information out to the community that they may miss," said University Council Member Rasheed N.C. Wyatt, who introduced the resolution during a Common Council meeting this week.

Time-Warner/Spectrum did not respond to a request for comment.

Between 2006 and 2013, the foreign-born population in Buffalo has increased by 95 percent, according to Wyatt, and the most recent American Community Survey shows that the city is home to more than 22,000 foreign-born residents. Many of them face language barriers, housing and employment challenges as well as difficulties accessing social service providers, he said.

All of those challenges illustrate the need for a public access channel geared toward immigrants and refugees so that the new arrivals can easily access key services and programs translated into the most common foreign languages, Wyatt said.

Wyatt also cited a study by the city’s Office of New Americans that says information on city services is transmitted by resettlement agencies, websites, printed materials and word of mouth. A public access channel specifically for the immigrant and refugee populations would ease the burden of having to navigate those various agencies and services, he said.

"They can have an area they can go and see information, to see how they can get the information so they can live the American dream," Wyatt said. "We have government access channels already, but this will be a station tailored towards them."

Lovejoy Councilman Richard A. Fontana said that in the last contract negotiations with then-Time Warner Cable, now Spectrum, city officials tried to get another public access channel, but the cable company felt the city was "adequately" served at that time. But, Fontana said, now is the right time to raise the issue again.

"Our needs have changed. So why don’t we ask for a channel for that purpose?" Fontana said. "We can have shows on how to deal with police; how to call for help; what to do with your money instead of hiding it at home. Good information can be given out to refugees."

Council President Darius G. Pridgen said he can already see the vision.

"This is probably the fastest growing demographic in the city: immigrants and refugees. This is Buffalo being more welcoming to refugees in this community," he said.

The resolution, which was unanimously approved, directed the city's Department of Telecommunications to negotiate with the cable company.

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