The journey from strife-torn, far away homelands to U.S. sanctuary is perilous, personal and profoundly universal.
Individuals and families who have resettled here in urban Buffalo, New York – and in other U.S. cities – collectively know that while air to breathe guarantees life, where you breathe that air can determine the extent to which you can live your life freely, without fear and persecution.
No matter the origin of passage, there are commonalities in the transition from refugee status to “New American.” Many who come to this country have lived for years in “displaced persons” camps in other countries – without nationality or citizenship – before successfully navigating through federal requirements for U.S. resettlement.
“The largest group that has been coming over in the past few years continues to be the Burmese. Years ago most of the Burmese were coming out of Thailand. Now we’re seeing them come out of Malaysia,” explains Denise Beehag, director of refugee resettlement at the International Institute of Buffalo.
The International Institute of Buffalo is the largest of the four resettlement agencies in Western New York: the three others are Catholic Charities, Jewish Family Service and Journey’s End. Together these not-for-profit organizations resettle approximately 1500 refugees annually to Western New York from Burma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bhutan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nepal, Eritrea and virtually every other conflict-ridden nation in the world.
“Language is always at the top,” Beehag says when asked about the chief challenges refugees face in resettlement to the U.S. “It’s complicated by the fact that a lot of Burmese groups were persecuted and weren’t allowed to have a formal education.”
“Most of the young Burmese who arrived in the first wave of refugees that have come to Buffalo since 2003 do not know the country, she adds: They were born or raised in refugee camps in Thailand.
“Even if they don’t speak the language, learning English is complicated by the fact that most don’t have an education to begin with.”
Other challenges that make the list for all resettled refugee include healthcare, education employment and cultural adjustment.
Naing arrived in Buffalo in November 2005, after living for 17 years as a displaced person in Thailand. He fled Burma in 1989 in the wake of the coup that returned the country to military rule – and changed its name to Myanmar – a year after the student movement that demanded a democratic government. He was a student at the time.
Erik Nevius, a community liaison at the International Institute, helped secure a Refugee Resettlement Bureau grant in 2011 to jumpstart the Burmese Community Support Center. In 2013, he visited Burma at the invitation of a family he had guided from refugee status to U.S. citizenship, and says there are “levels and levels” to defining the ups and downs of conflict, violence and persecution there that make refugees refugees.
Depending on their ethnicity, or not, “New Americans” from Burma have settled in Black Rock, Riverside, on the West Side in the Grant Street “renaissance” neighborhood and near Connecticut and Vermont Streets.
The Burmese Muslim community has settled mainly on Buffalo’s East Side.