European advocates learn about refugee resettlement in Buffalo

Apr 4, 2016

They work on the front lines in Central Europe's refugee crisis. They recently arrived in Buffalo for a visit to learn how refugees are assisted and settled here, hoping to bring some of the lessons back to their respective homelands.

The International Institute of Buffalo welcomed a small group of delegates who shadowed those working directly with the refugees who settle here in Western New York.

Left to right: Magda Faltová and Maciej Bulanda, both of whom advocate for refugees fleeing to Europe, recently visited the International Institute of Buffalo to learn more about how Buffalo is handling incoming refugees.
Credit Michael Mroziak, WBFO

The guests, who work with "non-governmental organizations" back home, immediately noticed the cooperation among not-for-profit agencies and local governments. It's not a prevailing tone they are seeing in their respective countries.

"The problem is our societies are not welcoming," said Magda Faltová, director of the Association for Integration and Migration, based in Prague, Czech Republic. "They don't want any refugees, especially Muslims, and it's a great challenge actually to overcome."

What is acknowledged is that unlike in the United States, where refugees are finally able to settle after undergoing several layers of vetting, the migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe have not gone through extensive background checks. That, say their European-based advocates, helps fuel the fear and prejudice against them. 

Following the recent terror attacks in Brussels, Poland's government announced it is holding off on an agreement to take in thousands of Middle Eastern refugees. Visiting Buffalo from Poland was Maciej Bulanda, co-founder of Refugees Welcome Poland. 

"They are trying to not speak about the real problems, so they are looking for a scapegoat," Bulanda said about the resistance to refugees in Poland. "That's very evident in Central and Eastern Europe."

One advantage refugees in the U.S. have is the ability to interact with people of similar or ethnic national backgrounds who have already settled here. In Central and Eastern Europe, since World War II, nations have for the most part been ethnically homogenized. 

That is changing somewhat in parts of Europe. Faltová noted the emergence of Vietnamese, Cuban, Syrian, Iraqi and Ukrainian communities in the Czech Republic. But language barriers remain a serious challenge for incoming migrants. She recalled an example from a few years ago, when a group of Somali women intending to travel to Sweden instead found themselves in the Czech Republic.

"We didn't have any interpreters. There was nobody really to help them in this cultural integration," Faltová said. "Thanks to technology, it's a little (better). We can have somebody in Germany or Denmark to interpret. Now it's better and better."

Technology has also aided refugee advocates. Bulanda's program, Refugees Welcome Poland, uses the internet to connect migrants with individuals who have rooms available for rent.

"By that we are not only trying to solve the more pressing issue, which is housing for the incoming population, but at the same time facilitate some strong, personal integration within local communities," Bulanda said. 

Additionally, social media has given advocates the means to provide updates on their work. One hashtag Bulanda encouraged people to follow is #NGO4Refugees.

Technology has also created some of the barriers facing migrants. The internet is full of messaging that often portrays refugees in a negative light. In some cases, the blogs produced by certain outlets distort information to fuel bigotry against an entire population.

"We don't really have easy positive messages," Faltová said. "As everybody knows, the positive word is much less powerful than the negative one. You can see it in your presidential campaign as well."

But if there are positive messages these advocates could share back home, based on what they learned in Buffalo, it's that refugees may, if given the chance, be a significant economic contributor to their new homeland.

It was recalled during their conversation with WBFO that immigrants helped build America generations ago and could revitalize the nation again.

"Immigrants and refugees are creating jobs," Bulanda said. "Most of the (Main) Street businesses in America are created by immigrants. I think this economic aspect can be influential and make some impact in Eastern Europe."

"The fact that migrants bring to the community a lot of opportunities, that they help to grow the economy, is one of the arguments that is very valid for me," Faltová added.