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African immigrants in Buffalo dismayed by Trump's slur

Gysma Kueny is upset.

Those words that President Trump is accused of using to describe immigrants like herself and the countries they came from and are not what she believes America is about.

"That's not the United States," she said.

She proudly showed off her stall at the West Side Bazaar on Grant Street, a business incubator started by the Westminster Economic Development Initiative where resettled refugees sell delicacies from their home countries as well as clothes, jewelry and other gifts.

Kueny, who is from South Sudan, offers an array of colorful shirts, handmade bracelets and necklaces, shea butter and black soap at the market popular with immigrants and hipster food enthusiasts.

"That's how we know America," she said of the lively lunch scene Friday at the bazaar.

Across Buffalo, a city that's no stranger to being called names, immigrants and the people who work with immigrant and refugee communities, expressed disappointment and dismay Friday at news that at a meeting about immigration, Trump used graphic language to disparage immigrants from African countries, as well as Haiti and El Salvador, questioning why the U.S. should allow in more immigrants from such countries.

Trump denied using the term Friday on Twitter.

Buffalo is an increasingly diverse city where more than 25,000 people — one in 10 Buffalonians — were born in a foreign country, according to a Census bureau estimate in 2016. Nearly 16,000 of them are now U.S. citizens. Between 2012 and 2017, 15,380 refugees were resettled in Buffalo, according to the State Department. Among them were 5,791 from countries in Africa, from where Trump apparently does not want any more immigrants. No refugees from Haiti or El Salvador were resettled in Buffalo during those years.

"Thank you Mr. President," quipped Patrick Ishimwe on Facebook Thursday night. "I am Proud to be from one of 'those' countries. And I am just as Proud to be American."

Ishimwe, who came to Buffalo in 2008, is an assistant community liaison for Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. Born in Rwanda, his family fled to the Congo when he was 2. He lived in Kenya and then Togo before his family was resettled in Buffalo through Journey's End.

"To be honest with you, I wasn't really surprised," Ishimwe said of Trump's comments. "I was more disappointed."

For much of his life, he said he's heard people disparage African immigrants as being lazy and eager for a handout from the U.S. A look at his family shows how mistaken such a notion would be. When Ishimwe's parents came to the U.S., his father took a job as a security guard in addition to being a pastor. His mother worked at Wegmans. The parents also both enrolled at SUNY Buffalo State and just recently received their degrees. Ishimwe started at Lafayette High School, ended up at prestigious City Honors and then went to Houghton College. Along the way, his family received help, with members of their church assisting Ishimwe and his siblings with their homework and driving their mother to the supermarket, Ishimwe said.

"I'm a byproduct of the effort of so many people," Ishimwe said. "That's why I got into public service."

Trump remark disparaging Haiti, Africa draws swift condemnation

Makau W. Mutua, a SUNY distinguished law professor and former dean of the University at Buffalo School of Law, was horrified by Trump's words.

"It's just incredible that a thought like that could cross any person's mind, let alone the president of the United States," said Mutua. UB has 83 students who were born in African countries, three from Haiti and one from El Salvador, university officials said. The university employs 41 people born in African countries and one from El Salvador.

Makau Mutua, interim dean of the University at Buffalo Law School, in a photo from Feb. 5, 2008. Mutua, a native of Kenya, expressed anger over a graphic comment allegedly made by President Trump that disparaged immigrants from countries in Africa. (File photo/Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

For Mutua, who grew up in a middle-class Catholic family in Kenya and graduated from Harvard Law School, for the president to say he would rather have immigrants from Norway than African countries shows he is a racist.

"I've heard people say the comments are 'racially charged' or 'racially insensitive,'" Mutua said. "I think we are beyond that kind of tepid language. We should call a spade what it is. And our president, whom I did not vote for, is a racist and a very toxic one."

Mutua got his values from his parents and his community in Kenya, he said. "To call my culture or any country or any human being something like that, to paint them with that kind of despicable language is just amazing to me," he said. Now, a U.S. citizen, Mutua is offended by how Trump is representing America, he said. "Obviously, I have been very fortunate in my life. So this country means a lot to me. For me to hear someone talk like that about people like me, it shocks my conscience."

On the city's West Side, home to many resettled refugees and immigrants, Trump's words were felt especially hard.

Mustafa Ali (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Mustafa Ali, 32, who fled Somalia for Kenya before he was resettled in Buffalo, points to how refugees are rejuvenating Buffalo. "The houses that were destroyed during the October 2006 storm, that's who is occupying those homes now," said Ali, now a social worker in the refugee community. 'What's the reason behind Grant Street's businesses... What are the percentages of foreign students in our schools? We don't have to look very far to see what the impacts of immigrants and refugees are," he said.

That's why what Trump said is so hurtful, said Ali's colleague, said Antonios Yohannes, 41, from Eritrea.

"The president's profanity.... I can only call this shameful and nonsense. The president should not forget his immigration background," Yohannes said.

Friday afternoon, a coalition of organizations that work with refugees, including the International Institute of Buffalo, Journey’s End Refugee Services, Catholic Charities of Buffalo and Jewish Family Service of Buffalo & Erie County New York jointly condemned Trump's alleged words.

Among them was Dr. Myron Glick, who founded the Jericho Road Community Health Center which provides health care and other services to refugees and other low income people on the West Side.

"It's appalling," Glick said in an interview before the news conference. "It shows total ignorance on the part of the president of the U.S."

Glick is well aware that there is great poverty and misery in parts of Africa. Jericho Road has helped build health centers in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, two war-torn regions from where many refugees have fled and where quality medical care is scarce. But there's so much more to these regions and people, Glick said.

"There's over 50 countries in Africa," the doctor said. "It's incredible diverse. There's wealth in Africa. There's poverty. There's amazing beauty and incredible need. You can't just paint that kind of picture of this place. It's not reality."

He wishes Trump would meet some refugees and hear their stories.

News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski contributed to this report.

Sean Kirst: Stories of suffering, triumph from those who fled nations Trump mocked

Dennis C. Walczyk, CEO of Catholic Charities of Buffalo, expressed dismay at news conference Jan. 12, 2018 in Buffalo about a graphic comment attributed to President Trump, that he did not want more refugees from countries in Africa. Walczyk said, “Treating all persons, whether native to our country or not, with dignity and respect is imperative to who we are as an organization. Thus, we are deeply disappointed by remarks attributed to President Trump that were said during a meeting on immigration policies, and we are discouraged that he fails to see the value and goodness of those who come from these countries and beyond."

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