Refugees revitalize Rust Belt city of Buffalo

Nov 20, 2013

Upstate New York cities take in around 90% of all current refugee resettlements in the state. All this week, The Innovation Trail is taking a look at how that diverse population has weaved its way into the region’s changing economy.

Journey's End Refugee Services Janitorial student explains assignment to classmates as teacher Bishnu Adhikari (left) observes.
Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News

In Buffalo, a handful of students from countries all over the world are sitting in a class at Journey’s End Refugee Services. They are learning how to become janitors for local businesses. The group nodded as another student explained an assignment to them.

It wasn’t that long ago that the group’s teacher, Bishnu Adhikari, was sitting in their seat, trying to understand English and the concept of a mop bucket and vacuum.

Adhikari and his wife Chitra came to the United States in 1992. They spent 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before arriving in the U.S. Adhikari shared his first thoughts when he found out he was headed to Buffalo.

Bishnu Adhikari (left) and Bryana DiFonzo (middle) express gratitude for students good work.
Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News

“We were thinking Buffalo means animal. That’s what we heard,” said Adhikari.

Erie County services the most refugee arrivals in New York State. In 2012, the City of Buffalo assisted more than 1,000 refugees, most of who were from Bhutan like Adhikari.

“When I came to the Buffalo airport I found my case manager. We shook hands, but I was like, ‘Oh no, who is this boy? What is he asking for?’ But he called my name and said, ‘Bishnu, I am your case manager, and you are welcomed to Buffalo,’” said Adhikari.

When Adhikari and his wife arrived at their new apartment, there were many things they’d never seen before, like the stove.

Journey's End Refugee Services Bishnu Adhikari (far right) tests his students on their vacuum skills.
Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News

“He showed us how to use gassy stove. The gassy stove was very new for us because we were using fire to cook. We don’t know how to turn it on or use it,” said Adhikari.

Adhikari and Chitra also didn’t eat for a few days.

“We didn’t find our food for a couple of days. After some days, we saw the grocery store, we went there and bought [food]. She started to cook,” said Adhikari.

After he settled into his new apartment, Adhikari enrolled in classes at Journey’s End Refugee Services to learn English. Now he is working as a vocational trainer and employment specialist. Adhikari says he talks to his students solely in English.

“They have no way to move back to their country where they use their language. They need to use English properly because this is their country now,” said Adhikari.

Adhikari says his students are learning more than how to be a housekeeper or janitor.

“They are also learning new things. For example, how to sit for the interview and what the new challenges are that they are going to face. Also, how to call 911 if something happens on the way to their workplace,” said Adhikari.

Journey's End Refugee Services student learns about janitorial items.
Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News

Every year, Journey’s End places more than 300 refugees in sectors like food service, hospitality, and manufacturing. Bryana DiFonzo, a volunteer manger with the agency, says refugees are a crucial part of the local business community.

“They’re really motivated to work hard because for them, it’s more than a job. It’s the chance to actually be able to provide for their family again, which they may not have been able to do for the last several decades,” said DiFonzo.

More importantly, DiFonzo says refugees are also bringing a new wave of energy to a city whose population has declined.

“They’ll be the people that are taking the initiative, who are opening the businesses, who are founding cultural organizations, who are making the schools better. They’re there, they’re willing to work on it, and they want to see their new city succeed,” said DiFonzo.

Bishnu Adhikari, Bryana DiFonzo, and Jeff Ogilvie of Journey's End Refugee Services.
Credit Ashley Hirtzel / WBFO News

DiFonzo says in order for refugees to succeed in making a better Buffalo, they need the help of the community.

“If you’re behind someone in line at the grocery store and they're having trouble counting the change, instead of being frustrated and upset, you could be supportive and calm and either help them or just wait until they’re done, and that’s going to be huge,” said DiFonzo.

Bishnu Adhikari says if longtime residents and refugees work together, the city will be a force to reckon with.