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In inaugural refugee class, stories of hope out of horror

Diop Gatungo escaped the massacre, but others he knew did not.

"Our friends, our cousins, in the camp of refugees were killed," he said, slicing his hand across his neck to illustrate what happened to them.

The 26-year-old is a survivor of  the slaughter of more than 150 refugees at a camp in Gatumba, Burundi, on  Aug. 13, 2004. Most had fled ethnic conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where Gatungo was born.

The scenes were different last week,  when he and 13 other refugees earned their certificates after an eight-week manufacturing training program at the International Institute of Buffalo. They make up the program's inaugural class, where they learned skills for jobs the institute says are in demand, and they seem set for success as members of Buffalo's growing refugee population.

With his certificate in hand and a packaging job lined up at Diversified Labor Solutions in Buffalo, Gatungo says he is "very, very, very, very happy."

After bouncing between several refugee camps, he resettled in Buffalo in late February with his sister, who has six children. A native Francophone, he has trouble speaking English but, like others in the program, has been improving since his arrival.

"I need to ameliorate my English," he said, sitting in the Georgian-style mansion where the institute is based. "I want to study college, university."

"When I finish, I will begin to help another person because other people helped me," he said.

Gatungo spoke of the poverty he once lived in but also of how, "step by step," he has risen.

His key has been courage.

"If you study, study in courage. If you walk, walk in courage," he said, pumping his hands, a metal ring inscribed with "Jesus" visible on one finger.

The International Institute is one of four refugee resettlement agencies in the city, which together have helped over 15,000 refugees move here since 2002. Thousands more have arrived after being first resettled elsewhere. The city government welcomes them, and local businesses hire them and praise their drive.

Some might balk at the idea of helping refugees find jobs that could otherwise go to Americans. But Laura Caley, the institute's employment services supervisor, told The Buffalo News that the manufacturing program, which has two more sessions slated this year, trains them for jobs that employers are having trouble filling.

A recent academic paper by the head of the University of Notre Dame's economics department found that:

  • After a decade, refugees are more likely to be working than an average American their age, and the percentage of them on welfare and food stamps is similar to that of native-born Americans.
  • Within eight years, they pay more taxes than they receive in government benefits.
  • After 20 years, an average refugee will have paid $21,000 more in taxes than they ever received in welfare.

Those conclusions, reached by professors William N. Evans and Daniel Fitzgerald, contrast with the thrust of President Trump's 2018 budget proposal. The proposal cited a federal study that showed that about half of the refugees who arrived in the past five years were on Medicaid in 2015. The study also showed that 45 percent received welfare payments and that 75 percent were on food stamps.

The reason most refugees start on welfare but don't stay on it has to do with how much they work, Evans found. And the International Institute helps them get working.

Eisa Kodi, another graduate of the program, shares a story similar to Gatungo's.

In 1993, as the Second Sudanese Civil War raged, government soldiers razed his village and killed most of its residents. They stole everything he had, the 51-year-old said.

After a stay in a refugee camp, he moved to Egypt in 2002, and on Aug. 2, 2016, he was resettled in Buffalo with his children: three sons and a daughter, the youngest 18, the oldest 28.

"I needed to find a safe place and a safe place for my children," he said, adding later, "I want to learn new things and to find good work in this country."

In his past life, he was a car mechanic and a grammar school teacher who taught English and Arabic, two of the four languages he knows. One of the other certificate students was once his pupil.

Along with earning his certificate, Kodi was recognized as one of three students with perfect attendance and, as one of several students who had missed fewer than four classes, received a tablet to take home.

"I don't know how to use it, but I know to try it," he said, laughing.

With experience in machinery, packaging and assembly-line work, Kodi feels closer to rounding out his education. He had already earned a graduate degree in theology while in Egypt.

For now, he's happy working for Diversified Labor Solutions, the same company as Gatungo. In fact, his shift started less than an hour after the graduation.

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