Right-wing speech hides refugee realities in the US

Away from political debates about refugees, some previously run-down cities are being rejuvenated by their arrival.

Buffalo piece- Please do not use
Buffalo's food options have widened, thanks to immigration, with new cuisine from Asia and Africa [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

Buffalo, New York – When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a halt on Muslims entering the United States, he was probably not thinking about Nadeen Yusuf, a hard-working Iraqi refugee who lives in Buffalo with her family.

A year after coming to the US, Yusuf already speaks decent English. She wakes at 4am each day for her shift in a supermarket bakery before heading to run her craft market stall. Down the line, she wants to buy a house and manage a home-making school for teenage girls. 

Not only is she living the American dream of upward mobility, but families like the Yusufs are credited with breathing new life into crime-ridden parts of Buffalo and helping a rust-belt city turn the page on decades of decline.

That is why it stings doubly hard when Trump and others say she is unwelcome.

“Even when it’s only 1 percent of people who say something to make you upset, it will hurt,” Yusuf, 44, told Al Jazeera.

“I’m glad I’m here. If I was in my country, I would never get this job or my kids would never have a school like this. We are doing well, but I can’t say I am happy. Because you leave all of your life, your memory, your parents, your sisters, everything.”

‘They don’t trust us’ 

The Yusufs fled Baghdad by car in 2006 during the sectarian bloodletting that followed the US-led invasion of 2003. Syria proved just as dangerous; they finally passed the US’ stringent security checks and gained refugee status while in Turkey in 2014.

Now she talks about growing her business by learning macrame and other skills via YouTube. Refugee agencies have helped her “too much” with English classes, handouts, cheap rent and other support, but not everyone has rolled out the red carpet, she said.

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“They don’t say anything directly but they don’t trust us,” Yusuf explained.

“Some people think because we are refugees we are poor, did not go to school and came just for benefits. We came because we did not want to lose our life, not for money or welfare.”

Refugees study English to help adapt to the US and find jobs as soon as possible [James Reinl/Al Jazeera] 
Refugees study English to help adapt to the US and find jobs as soon as possible [James Reinl/Al Jazeera] 

Bringing life back to the city

Buffalo has become a refugee hub over the past decade. The surrounding county absorbed 1,380 of the 4,085 refugees to settle in New York State in 2014. Many had fled war, hardship and persecution in Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia, Congo and Bhutan.

Nowadays, 8.4 percent of Buffalo’s population were born overseas and 15.6 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to the US Census Bureau, which counts refugees, immigrants and other newcomers together.

Like Yusuf and her craft business, refugees are linked with industriousness. They open shops, restaurants and other small businesses, often on the city’s West Side, where locals can now dine on delicacies from Burmese black rice to Ethiopian injera. 

A few decades back, it was a run-down hotbed of vice and crime. Now it boasts supermarkets, eateries and mobile phone sellers. Once-dilapidated buildings sport new paint jobs and property values are climbing. 

“It was like a war zone. Abandoned houses, drugs, prostitution,” resident Karen Greenspan told Al Jazeera. “There’s a really neat resurgence because of refugees and immigrants. They’re ‘rehabbing’ houses, opening restaurants, stores. It’s bringing life back to the city.” 

More than 16 percent of high-street businesses in the Buffalo area are owned by foreign-born entrepreneurs, according to a 2013 report by the Americas Society and the Fiscal Policy Institute, called Bringing Vitality to Main Street. 

Buffalo needs it. The city’s heyday has long passed.

As many as 45 languages are spoken in Buffalo's high schools [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
As many as 45 languages are spoken in Buffalo’s high schools [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]

The City of Good Neighbours

Despite its harsh winters, Buffalo grew rapidly after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, which linked the Great Lakes with the Hudson River, New York City and the Atlantic for a lucrative trade in wheat and other goods.  

Shipyards, iron and steel mills, meat-packing plants, flour mills, and railway industries followed. In the 1890s, engineers gave the city another boon by harnessing waterpower from the nearby Niagara River and the world-famous waterfalls. 

But as trains and lorries replaced barges in the 20th century, Buffalo was increasingly sidelined. Its population fell from a peak of 580,000 in the 1950s to about 259,000 today as factories closed and left the region a forsaken rust belt.

Buffalo’s mayor, Byron Brown, says that downward trend could be over. The city is witnessing a renaissance thanks to refugees and immigrants, as well as empty nesters moving back from the suburbs and millennials opting for cheaper places such as Buffalo over New York City and Chicago.

“In 1950, we were as big as the city of Boston, for example. Every decade since we have lost population. It is finally projected that for the first time since the 1950 census we might see our first population gain in 2020,” Brown told Al Jazeera. 

Buffalo has also been the centrepiece of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s effort to revitalise the upstate economy, with a $1bn pledge – the so-called “Buffalo Billion” – for creating 14,000 jobs via a solar panel factory, a drugs research complex and other schemes. 

Brown, the grandson of Caribbean migrants, holds up Buffalo as a model of integration. While Republican politicians across the US call for undocumented Latinos to be kicked out or the door closed on Syrians and Iraqis, such divisive rhetoric carries little sway in Buffalo, he said. 

“We haven’t had protests. We haven’t had buildings burned. We haven’t had a house of worship defaced. But we don’t want to get to that point,” Brown said.

Sean Mulligan, a staffer in the city council, says there have been grumbles in public meetings, with residents complaining that newcomers cannot speak English, but that Buffalo is mostly living up to its nickname as the City of Good Neighbours.

Buffalonians are “closely connected to their own history”, Mulligan told Al Jazeera.

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Sited on the land of Seneca Indians, Buffalo has received German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian and Latino migrants, among others, as well as blacks fleeing the south via the Underground Railroad, a slavery-era web of escape routes and safe houses. 

“Buffalo was losing jobs way before the refugees arrived,” Mulligan added. “The fact that people are willing to come and live here is really appreciated.” 

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Not all officials toe the mayor’s line. After the November attack in Paris claimed 131 lives, county politician Joseph Lorigo said Syrians should not be welcomed to Buffalo, warning: “The risk to our community is far too great.” 

Last year, Arafat Nagi, a Yemeni-American from nearby Lackawanna was arrested after buying night-vision goggles, a machete and body armour and travelling overseas to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which controls swaths of Iraq and Syria. 

His town, home to many Yemeni immigrants, has been closely watched since the so-called Lackawanna Six were arrested in 2002 for attending an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan shortly before the 9/11 attacks. 

Last month, two Iraq-born Palestinian men who lived in the US as refugees were arrested in Texas and California on terror-related charges. 

Rights groups say they were isolated cases and that most refugees eschew groups such as ISIL. But while their narrative of diligent workers reviving run-down towns is compelling, it is not the whole story. 

Many refugees cannot speak English, which makes it hard for them to find jobs. And qualifications gained overseas can be worthless in the US, with the result that refugees with PhDs sometimes end up driving taxis.

Buffalo's teachers struggle with so many languages in use in classrooms. One high school is set to close [James Reinl/Al Jazeera] 
Buffalo’s teachers struggle with so many languages in use in classrooms. One high school is set to close [James Reinl/Al Jazeera] 

‘Back to zero’

Adolphe Chebeya, 35, has been in the US for only three months and is daunted by his new home. He fled Congo after government forces killed his brother and threatened him. He spent four years in Uganda before landing a US visa. 

Now he studies English and gets $350 each month, food stamps and free housing. He is worried about his benefits drying up, and wonders why his experience in a university in Africa has not lined him up for a good job in the US.

“They’re not interested in me. I did university. I worked with many international organisations, but they put me back to live on zero, to learn the ABC. I’m obligated to do it. If I don’t go, they won’t give me food, they won’t pay my rent,” Chebeya told Al Jazeera. 

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Buffalo’s largest refugee contingent hails from Myanmar. It has been plagued by a spate of burglaries that is widely believed to be the work of teenage refugees. But victims, fearful of the police shakedowns they experienced back home, seldom dial 911.  

Some have lived in jungles without electricity, leading to mishaps with appliances and burned-out kitchens. Many fall victim to crooked landlords or estate agents seeking to unload shoddy properties at premium prices. 

Adapting to the US can be tough for people who are traumatised by having lived in squalid camps for years, enduring torture or persecution at the hands of government officials or seeing loved ones get blown apart by rocket fire.

According to Lamin Tamang, a Bhutanese refugee who reached the US in 2012, most of his compatriots suffer “some kind of mental illness” after bearing the brunt of a government deportation of ethnic Nepalese in the 1990s.

“People struggle with the challenges of a new country,” Tamang told Al Jazeera.

“They are scared of being shot, afraid of the presence of guns in America. They see terrible crimes on television and think the same could happen to them. After they stay a couple of years, they get to know what is real and go outside without fear.”

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Refugees: A driving force

Back in Nepal’s refugee camps, Tamang taught schoolchildren for five years. In the US, he works as a translator for Bhutanese refugees with mental health issues and spends his evenings at college studying for a US teaching qualification.  

US refugee agencies target cities such as Buffalo for their relatively low rents. This also means they send newcomers to poor areas with high unemployment and overstretched social services. Buffalo’s poverty rate is 30.7 percent. 

“When I imagined America, I imagined New York City or Boston, like in the movies. But I was put somewhere in the junk, I would say. Where there are less people and the housing isn’t comfortable. I consider myself in kind of a slum area,” Tamang said.  

Refugee children have their own problems, often getting low grades in schools where teachers struggle amid the dozens of languages in use. Beset by abysmal graduation rates, Buffalo’s Lafayette High School is set to close. 

The challenges and opportunities faced by Buffalo’s refugees are replicated across the country. 

According to the Americas Society report, refugees and other immigrants are a driving force in regenerating run-down areas. Nationally, they own 61 percent of petrol stations, 58 percent of dry cleaners and 53 percent of grocery stores. 

Newcomers open stores selling food and clothes from back home [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]  
Newcomers open stores selling food and clothes from back home [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]  

‘Let your smile change the world’

Immigrants give a “critical population boost” to declining areas, says the 42-page study. Cities such as Philadelphia, St Paul and Nashville have pro-immigrant policies. Shrinking cities such as Baltimore, St Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago might do well to take note. 

Others highlight the cost of resettling refugees, not the payback. 

Jessica Vaughan, an analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, says that the five-year resettlement of each Syrian refugee costs $64,000, which could “break the bank” of the often-poor neighbourhoods where they are typically sent. 

The US is the world’s most generous host of refugees, admitting three million since 1975. In that time, the number of those in need has risen. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, warns that 60 million people globally are currently displaced by conflict. 

As the European refugee crisis of Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Somalis, Afghans and others made headlines last year, US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, raised the annual US refugee intake to 85,000, to include 10,000 Syrians displaced by civil war.

His decision was welcomed by some, but also prompted fears of Paris-style attacks on US soil. Trump called for banning all Muslim travel to the US. His lead rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Ted Cruz, said some resettled refugees should be sent back home. 

In November, a Bloomberg Politics poll found that 53 percent of Americans wanted to turn away Syrian refugees. Pew Research Center describes similarly lacklustre support for welcoming Hungarian refugees in 1958, as well as Indochinese in 1979 and Cubans in 1980. 

Right-wingers are likely to debate the issue up until November’s presidential election, but efforts by some congressional politicians and state governors to limit refugee numbers and boost security vetting are not being implemented.

None of this seems to bother Yusuf, back at her craft stall in Buffalo. She is too busy with her children’s education and devising new macrame products – from key rings to baby gifts and wall hangings.

A year after coming to the US, Yusuf already speaks decent English. She wakes at 4am each day for her shift in a supermarket bakery before heading to her craft market stall [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]  
A year after coming to the US, Yusuf already speaks decent English. She wakes at 4am each day for her shift in a supermarket bakery before heading to her craft market stall [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]  

She embodies many trademark Republican values: a strong work ethic, devotion to her four children and social conservatism. Yet her religion and war-ravaged homeland put her at odds with much that Republicans espouse.

Nevertheless, she remains upbeat. Her macrame wall decorations feature colourful pictures and pithy maxims to lift the spirits. One of the adages is particularly fitting for the challenges facing Muslim refugees in the US.

“Let your smile change the world, not the world change your smile,” it reads.

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera