News / USA

Refugees Revitalize Buffalo

Relocation program aids city's renaissance

Zah Win in his Buffalo, New York, laundromat where the walls are covered with posters denouncing Burma’s military junta.
Zah Win in his Buffalo, New York, laundromat where the walls are covered with posters denouncing Burma’s military junta.



Zaw Win’s journey from Burma to Buffalo, New York was not a matter of just buying an airline ticket.

He spent five years as a political prisoner in his native country where Win says he was tortured and starved. Escaping after paying smugglers to hide him in the bottom of a fishing boat, he eventually made it to the United States where he was  granted asylum. In 2005, he was resettled in Buffalo.

Now, Win runs a laundromat where the walls are plastered with colorful posters denouncing Burma’s military junta.

“Whenever I put the sign, the customer they ask me question and they can explain current situation in my country," he says.  "Where is location of Burma? What happening in Burma now? Who is the leader now? What is the military dictatorship?”

Thousands of Buffalo residents already know the answers. Like Win, they fled from Burma. And they also landed in America’s third poorest city unable to speak English with almost no money or job prospects. But some long-time residents see investing in these refugees as Buffalo’s way forward.

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

Working through her church, the retired businesswoman helped Win develop a business plan and provided collateral for him to get a microloan. It’s something he never would have qualified for on his own. In the past decade, close to 10 nonprofits in Buffalo have started or added refugee resettlement to their mission. That can include English classes, driving lessons or help buying and improving one of the economically-depressed region’s thousands of abandoned homes.

Cities along the Great Lakes used to rule the American economy, manufacturing steel by the shipload. Now, these once mighty metros are known as the Rust Belt. Since the aging industrial plants in Buffalo started closing in the 1950s, more half of its population has left. But now, thousands are moving in: refugees from Burma, Sudan and other far-away, conflicted places. Officials are trying to turn their relocation into a renaissance.   

According to Aaron Bartley, director of PUSH Buffalo, refugees are perfect candidates to bring Rust Belt cities back to life. “The way we’re going to solve that is by making it a neighborhood people want to stay in. And a neighborhood the various communities - whether they’re Burmese, Somalian, Sudanese, Liberian - want to put down roots in. That they don’t see it as a stopping point to get to another place.”

This wouldn’t be happening on such a large scale without the Refugee Protection Act of 1980. The law was designed to stop population loss in Rust Belt cities like Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland by subsidizing refugee resettlement there. About 1,500 refugees came to Buffalo just last year.

“Even with that 1,500 refugees, we still saw a population decline in our community. We’re still trying to catch up even with those refugees coming in,” says Molly Short, who runs Journey’s End, one of Buffalo’s four resettlement agencies.

While most American cities have one agency like hers, the Rust Belt is home to dozens and Short says they can barely meet the demand. She adds that resettlement services have been severely hurt by federal budget cuts in recent years. Often times, the agencies can’t predict what help a refugee needs to feel at home.

“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.”

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

While Burmese refugee Win feels quite welcome in Buffalo, some customers can be difficult and Win feels business could be better.

“Not really bad, not really good. So-so. 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 plans to assist others just as he was aided - helping out-of-work refugees open their own shops and create their own jobs.

You May Like

800-Pound Man Determined to Slim Down

Man says he was kicked out of hospital for ordering pizza; wants to be an actor More

Australia Prepares to Resettle 12,000 Syrian Refugees

Preference will be given to refugees from persecuted minorities, and the first group is expected to arrive before late December More

S. African Miners Seek Class Action Suit Against Gold Mines

The estimated 100,000 say say they contracted the lung diseases silicosis and tuberculosis in the mines More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs