Much of the current focus on immigration into the United States remains on the country’s southern border. But in Buffalo, a local organization continues to serve as a beacon of hope for individuals and families fleeing war-torn and unstable nations.
Behind the red bricks of an old school building in Buffalo’s Kensington neighborhood lies Vive, a shelter house for asylum-seekers looking to make the United States or Canada their home. In an old classroom still adorned with chalkboards of yesteryear, we met an enthusiastic Congolese man.
“As a young leader I was involved in a kind of thinktank, a youth thinktank. And because of that I joined an NGO, which is named the National Cycle for Peace and Democracy,” said the man. “We started doing some demonstrations, the opposing side created a platform in which many political parties were involved in.”
For his own safety, we’re not using the man’s real name. We are calling him Paul.
Paul was active in opposing President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s 2015 campaign to change the Republic of Congo’s constitution to allow him to run for another term in office. When Nguesso ultimately won his referendum effort, Paul found himself bound by the iron grips of the powerful Central African regime.
“Me and some of my friends were arrested during that time,” said Paul. “So we got into trouble, I went in jail, then I got released later on. So because in the past I was not involved in such events, like political things, my family was very worried. They told me ‘you have to stop’.”
For a while, Paul did stop. Working as an engineer in the oil industry, he proved to be a rising young star in the Congo. His work took him around the world for training and business, but after splitting time between the United States, Malaysia and Congo, Paul once again found himself involved in the politics of his home country – this time supporting former Army General Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko’s 2016 run for the presidency.
Mokoko placed third in the presidential election and was promptly arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Paul says it was then he knew he had to leave, and luckily, he had a U.S. visa that was still valid for another two weeks.
“But my family didn’t. I have a wife with one kid who’s six years old now,” Paul said on his situation back home. “The short term project is for my family to be here, because I won’t be able to really be focused without them. Especially my son, I want him to be here for sure”
Paul returned to the U.S., and made his way to Vive by way of Texas. He has been here since July. But his journey to America is just one of many for asylum-seekers looking to escape danger. In 2017, the Office of Immigration Statistics said that of the 26,568 people granted asylum, 9.4% resided in New York State.
Anna Mongo, Chief Program Officer of Vive’s parent organization Jericho Road, says it is not easy to satisfy the United States’ requirement for asylum, as outlined by the UN. Proving illegal incarceration, threats, violent persecution, and even torture for some asylum-seekers can be difficult.
“It’s not always easy getting proof that you were tortured,” Mongo said. “It’s not something where you can call up your torturer and be like, 'Hey can you give me a letter that states that you tortured me, I’d really appreciate it, thanks.’ So sometimes proving some of these cases can be kind of tricky.”
Mongo says the Queen City has been strong in supporting the immigrant community. And many asylum-seekers passing through Vive, like Paul, possess specialized skills from their home country that can benefit the local economy.
“I just believe that the value of asylum-seekers so outweighs the little bit of cost that we have to put into supporting them during this time,” said Mongo. “Buffalo is a place where we need a workforce, we need educated people, we need incoming population, and asylum seekers help do those things. They’re people who want to start a new life, they want to give back to the community, and they want to be self-supporting.”
Paul is still in the long legal process of being granted asylum. If approved, he plans to return to school to complete a master’s degree in petrol engineering and, hopefully with his family in tow, start a new life and career in America.