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In time of crisis, Buffalo refugee community finds solace in Buffalo String Works

The kids had been working toward this evening for months.

They had been capping off their school day with music lessons three days a week at the Dream Center on Lafayette Avenue, prepping their parts and eagerly anticipating the early March fundraiser concert that would mark the sixth anniversary of Buffalo String Works, the nonprofit music education organization that serves Buffalo refugee and immigrant families like the ones they come from.

Under executive director Yuki Numata Resnick and her partners, BSW co-founders Virginia Barron, Megan McDevitt and Elise Alaimo Golove, the kids had honed their budding skills and arrived at the Hotel Henry on the first Saturday in March, ready for the gala event. More than 150 supporters were there to cheer them on.

None of them knew this would be the last time they would perform together in the same room for the foreseeable future.

Within a matter of days of the Hotel Henry concert, Buffalo String Works closed. The music that had so greatly eased the students’ assimilation into a culture and society radically different than the one many of their families had fled – perhaps in Afghanistan, Burma, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia or Syria – would be silenced.

A shocking shutdown

“We had an uplifting celebration at the Hotel Henry,” recalled Numata Resnick. “Over the last six years, our benefit concerts have grown from being held in living rooms to more grandiose settings like the Hotel Henry ballroom. It was a momentous and joyful occasion. So, it was shocking for all of us to suddenly shut down the program a few days later.”

Numata Resnick and her colleagues knew these students and their families were counting on them. So they sprung into action.

“We spent our three-week snack budget to send our students home with some extra food," she said. "We hurriedly printed translated documents in Karen, Burmese, Tigrinya, Swahili and Spanish – everything from hand-washing instructions to the latest communication from Buffalo Public Schools. We’ve worked hard to build trusting relationships with all our BSW families, so we used that final day to do everything we could to ensure that our families had the information they needed to prepare."

Buffalo String Works Executive Director Yuki Numata Resnick working with students. (Photo courtesy of Buffalo String Works)

It took the BSW team less than a week to build the infrastructure of a new virtual school based around a website that would provide multilanguage video communication to the 74 students. Immediately, students and their families began clamoring for an avenue to keep the music going. “Ms. Yuki, how about violin lessons online?” read a text message to Numata Resnick from one parent. Within a month, 65% of the students had enrolled in online classes.

“These texts kept me going,” Numata Resnick said. “I was at a loss when it hit me that I wouldn’t be able to see our students each week. They embody everything BSW stands for. Seeing them is my motivation. "

[Related: The National aims to effect change through music and help refugees]

A city of immigrants and good neighbors

There are approximately 5,000 foreign-born families with 15,000 children in Buffalo schools. About 1,500 of these families are newly arrived in the country. Many of them are learning the language while they’re adapting to the customs of the culture and the intricacies of the education and economic systems.

The situation is demanding under the best of circumstances. Add a pandemic and it becomes all but untenable.

“The parents in these families are English language learners themselves and many lack any formal education,” said International Institute of Buffalo director of development Lauren Maguire. “We want to ensure they are receiving messaging from their schools that is language-accessible and that they are supported while their children are learning from home. We know this is a challenge for English-speaking families, so imagine the stress on English language-learner families.”

The problems extend far beyond language to basic food and shelter needs.

“We’ve been working with partners to deliver fresh food and groceries to clients,” Maguire said. “This food distribution is particularly important, as many of our families can’t access existing food pantries or distribution sites for reasons related to religion, culture or transportation. We’ve been distributing materials for client families to make face masks and gathering donated masks from the broader community.”

Sadly, organizations like the International Institute are not necessarily getting the support they need from the state or federal governments, making Maguire worry about being able to help the population as needs rise.

“Our families typically lack savings, so a loss of income can be devastating. We are seeing a doubling or tripling of our expenses related to basic needs for clients – food, housing, telephone access, medical co-pays – all these expenses are challenges," Maguire said. "We’re also challenged by funding cuts in the 2021 New York State budget that will constrain the work we are able to do with and for the community, and by the drastic reduction in Refugee Resettlement funding imposed by the Trump administration.

Maguire said people who want to help should support immigrant and refugee-owned businesses when they can.

“These folks are struggling and don’t have the same access to federal stimulus programs that larger and more established businesses do. Support agencies that are working directly with refugees, immigrants and other vulnerable populations," Maguire said.

“Think about the challenges that you are facing navigating this pandemic and imagine what that would feel like if you had a limited ability to understand the news and health updates, if you couldn’t read your children’s homework assignments, if you lost your income and couldn’t access the benefit hotline because you don’t speak English. These communities are especially vulnerable right now and they need your support.”

Buffalo String Works-Evan Courtin-2020

Buffalo String Works Instructor Evan Courtin teaches his students during practice at the Buffalo Dream Center on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Music unites in time of crisis

Music can transcend culture and geography to speak to our core capacities as humans. Numata Resnick said that knowing the BSW families still want and need music "has made all the difference."

“I am so proud to know that BSW has played a part in nurturing this love for music and I am grateful to our families for continuing to hold it so dear to their hearts, even in a time of crisis," she said.

By adapting to the situation, Buffalo String Works has expanded its capabilities, paving the way for an expanded program on the other side of the pandemic.

“Private lessons were never part of our on-site model, because we are so focused on team-based learning, so this has been an unexpected silver lining for us,” Numata Resnick said. "The remaining students continue to engage through weekly videos on our website and we are receiving positive feedback from families, based on Facebook videos shared online of siblings playing music together and the videos and photos sent directly to us from students."

She said she has been deeply moved by the fortitude the immigrant and refugee community has demonstrated during these most trying of times.

“This crisis has reminded me that our families are truly resilient people. Many of them have endured unspeakable hardships in their lifetimes. And they continue to show strength in the wake of the current pandemic.”

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