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Another Voice: Afghan refugees represent opportunity for Buffalo Niagara

Another Voice: Afghan refugees represent opportunity for Buffalo Niagara

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Buffalo is expected to be one of two dozen cities resettling Afghan evacuees as the United States processes tens of thousands of at-risk individuals.

While we have a moral obligation to support these displaced Afghans, they will contribute to the vibrancy of our communities and the strength of our economies for generations to come as other immigrant groups have done historically.

About 1,100 Afghan evacuees are heading to New York, with one-third set to resettle within the Buffalo-Niagara area, the state’s largest share.

This presents a logistical challenge, but it’s also a huge opportunity.

The 2020 census revealed that immigrants and refugees helped the Buffalo population grow for the first time in 70 years. And immigrants contributed $258.8 million in state and local taxes across the Western New York area in 2019 alone because they had access and the ability to engage impactfully in the local economy.

What many don’t realize is that refugee families are limited to 90 days of support before they are responsible for self-sufficiency.

To help Afghan evacuees succeed, Western New York’s city and county governments, local nonprofit organizations, and the private sector must all do their part.

The five organizations across the Western New York Refugee and Asylee Consortium (WNYRAC) already help refugees find housing, enroll children in school, identify career paths and apply for jobs. But these agencies are stretched thin.

Financial contributions, in kind donations, and volunteer support for WNYRAC’s Buffalo United for Afghan Evacuees campaign can help ensure a positive start for refugee families. And targeted outreach by trusted messengers can help the new arrivals access nonprofit and government services, including housing assistance funds, financial literacy workshops and scholarship opportunities.

Immigrants often have degrees, certifications and professional work experience, but American employers are less likely to accept these qualifications than they would similar ones from American workers. Localities can help by reforming occupational licensing laws to make it easier for immigrants and refugees to translate their foreign certifications into credentials that are valid in the United States.

The private sector can help by implementing inclusive hiring practices that consider foreign qualifications. This would also assist the community by addressing current labor shortages in key industries.

Community leaders also need to think creatively about how to encourage affordable housing development near transportation and job hubs. For example, property managers could be incentivized to rent to evacuees.

Buffalo prides itself on its moniker as the “City of Good Neighbors.” One of the most neighborly ways we can welcome Afghans resettling in Western New York and across the United States is ensuring that they have the support and access to successfully rebuild their lives and contribute to our communities.

Natalie Gonnella-Platts is a Buffalo native and director of the George W. Bush Institute Women’s Initiative. Kristin Kent Spanos is a program manager of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative.

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