If you want to see how refugees are changing Buffalo, N.Y., the West Side Bazaar is a good place to start. It’s an incubator for immigrant-owned businesses. And it’s the only place in town where you can eat Ethiopian sponge bread, Burmese noodles and Peruvian chicken at the same table. It’s also a market with clothing and gifts.
“We are like family here — families from different countries,” says Nadeen Yousef, who moved to Buffalo from Iraq last year. Yousef now has a booth at the bazaar, where she sells handmade macrame wall hangings and art.
There’s been a vigorous debate in this country about refugee resettlement, much of it focused on whether Syrian refugees pose a security threat. There’s been less talk about what happens when refugees put down roots in their new country, in places like Buffalo’s west side.
“The presence of foreign-born residents of the city of Buffalo has increased by 95 percent” since 2006, says Mayor Byron Brown. “And that community feels that Buffalo has been a welcoming place.”
Brown isn’t the only one who thinks refugees are one reason the city’s population has stopped falling for the first time in decades.
“They were pretty much the only group that was moving into the west side of Buffalo and taking over those vacant houses and vacant businesses,” says Denise Beehag, director of refugee and employment services at the International Institute of Buffalo, one of several resettlement agencies in the city. She credits refugees with “changing the overall vibe of the area and making it a more desirable place to live.”
Now there’s a coffee shop, bookstore and bar side by side with immigrant-owned restaurants and grocery stores. The neighborhood’s population is growing, and property values are rising.
Roughly 10,000 refugees have resettled in the Buffalo area since 2003, with the biggest contingents coming from Myanmar, Somalia and Bhutan. That’s a huge influx in a medium-sized city. And it’s brought some major challenges, too — like meeting the refugees’ medical and mental health needs.
“We’re resettling these refugees in one of the poorest cities in the country,” says Dr. Myron Glick, co-founder of the Jericho Road Community Health Center. The clinic has come to specialize in treating refugees since it opened its doors in 1997.
“We’re taking folks who are already stressed — who are coming from refugee camps — and we’re resettling them on the west side and east side of Buffalo,” says Glick. “And it’s great. They’re helping to bring Buffalo back, but there is a cost.”
The refugee influx has put an additional strain on a school system that’s one of the most troubled in the state. There’s been a spike in burglaries, especially among refugees from Myanmar. And there’s lingering resentment from some residents about the specialized attention and support that refugees get.
“They come here, they get all this stuff; we get nothing,” says Mia James, a grandmother who has lived in Buffalo all her life. “We’re from here. We get nothing. Nothing. It’s hard for us to even take care of our children here.”
Brown insists that residents have access to all the same city benefits as refugees. And immigrants like Louise Sano say they’ve worked hard to get their businesses off the ground. Sano owns a small boutique called Global Villages, where she sells jewelry, gifts and clothing from Africa.
Sano was born in Rwanda and fled to Namibia in the 1990s. Four years ago, she moved to the Buffalo region, where her husband’s family had resettled.
“People are very friendly,” Sano says. “It’s very easy to integrate as a new American, a new person coming to the U.S. So I feel like I have created my own village.”
She’s changing the face of her new city in the process.