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West Side invests in refugees as revitalization strategy

Video by Nick Gunner.

As an iconic Rust Belt city, Buffalo has seen half of its population leave since 1950. But now, thousands are moving in: refugees from Burma, Sudan and other remote and conflicted places. 

Community leaders are trying to turn their relocation into a renaissance.

Zaw Win: former political prisoner, Laundromat owner

The journey from Burma to Buffalo for refugee Zaw Win was not a matter of just punching a ticket. As a political prisoner for five years, he was tortured and starved. He fled by paying smugglers to hide him in the bottom of a fishing boat, and was eventually offered asylum in the United States.

Now, he runs a Laundromat, where his walls are plastered with colorful posters protesting Burma's military junta, which piques his customers' curiosity.

"Whenever I put the sign, the [customers] ask me [to] explain current situation in my country. Where is location of Burma? What happening in Burma now? Who is the leader now? What is the military dictatorship?" Win says.

While he couldn't hang these banners in his own country, Zaw Win has an audience of thousands of Burmese on the Buffalo's West Side. They, like Win, recently landed in the country's third poorest city with almost no money or ability to speak English.

But people like Bonnie Smith see investing in refugees as Buffalo's way forward. Through her church, Win developed a business plan and found a microloan.

"What we feel like we're doing is just giving people a little leg up on prosperity," Smith says. "We've seen people take hold of that and blossom with it. Slowly the community begins to improve."

Most West Side community groups have worked refugee resettlement into their missions for improving the neighborhood, whether it's offering English classes and driving lessons, or buying and improving abandoned homes to make them fit for refugees to live in.

According to Aaron Bartley, founder of PUSH Buffalo, refugees are perfect candidates to help solve the West Side's high vacancy rate.

"The way we're going to solve that is by making it a neighborhood people want to stay in," Bartley says. "And a neighborhood [that] the various communities - whether they're Burmese, Somolian, Sudanese, Liberian - want to put down roots in. [A neighborhood] they don't see it as a stopping point to get to another place."

A "perfect place to start over"

This migration and resettling wouldn't be happening on such a large scale without the Refugee Protection Act of 1980. That law tried to stop rampant population bleeding in places like Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland by filling their declining housing stock with refugees.

Last year in Buffalo alone, 1,500 refugees came to the city.

"Even with those 1500 refugees, we still saw a population decline in our community," says Molly Short, executive directory of Journey's End, a resettlement group that helps refugees acclimate. "We're still trying to catch up even with those refugees coming in."

But services like Short's have been targeted by proposed federal budget cuts. She says it's tough enough as it is to make refugees feel like they're part of Buffalo's fabric.

"Sometimes we'll have a refugee arrive who [has] literally never been in a car before they left a refugee camp, never used electricity. And then we have refugees come in who are doctors and scientists and mathematicians," Short says.

And many times, she says, the educated and illiterate are competing for the same small pot of jobs.

Mostly welcome

While Burmese refugee Zaw Win says he feels mostly welcome in Buffalo, the reception from some locals has been as cold as the weather. As I entered his Laundromat for the first time to record an interview with him, I found him in the middle of a spat with a customer demanding to be reimbursed for clothes that he claimed were burned by a dryer.

And Win says that business could be better.

"Not really bad, not really good. So-so," he says of his profits. "Not much money for my pocket. And then for future more and more better, I believe this."

Win says his microloan will be paid off in a year or two. Then, he promises to help other out-of-work refugees open their own shops, and create their own jobs.

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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