Buffalonian of the Week: Anna Ireland

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Anna Ireland with Karibu News

Karibu News: Thank you Anna for having us here. Would you like to tell us a little about yourself?

Anna Ireland: Ok let me tell you a little about myself. I started working with refugees in 2002. I had just finished Peace Corps service and I have done my Peace Corps in Kenya so I came back from learning Swahili and I wanted to use that skill. Before I came back my parents started looking around something that I can do. So, they heard about Journey’s End and advised to go and see what is going on at Journey’s End. It was a sort of lucking timing because at the time I came from East Africa speaking Swahili with two years living in Kenya and humm I was not living in Nairobi I was living in a small village. So, the Somali Bantu started coming to Buffalo and of course they were coming from Kenya and about 75% of them speak Swahili. So, Journey’s End hired me almost instantly so that I can start working with Somali Bantu refugees.

So did that for about three years. And most of that time I was the only certified Swahili interpreter in the city. So, it was a busy time for me.  That was my introduction to refugees, who refugees are. I loved to work with refugees and I likes to go back to school, but I never really stop.

When was that?

That was in 2005. So, I was not with Journey’s End anymore, but there was a couple of families that ii was helping. Then I started pretty much going to school full time and working for free, essentially full time. So, a couple us that have been working with refugees through an agency and now started doing it on our own, we got together and started Hope Refugee Services in 2007.

So, are you the ones who started Hope Refugee Services?

Yes.

Is it still operational?

It is still operational. When Hope was Hope Refugee Services, it was the drop-in center with other programs, but in 2008 we merged with Jericho Road. So, the Hope Service Drop-in center is on West Ferry. I started that, it is still functioning and it has about 120 clients and employs fifteen people. It is doing very well.

Originally what we did to start the drop-in center is that we went to the Burundian community services, the Iranian community president, the Somali Bantu community president, the Somali community president and we said what you guys need to be helped with? They said, we need a place to go and ask questions and that’s why we created the drop-in center.

Even though it started primarily with East African focus, now if you there you will not see only East Africans, you will mostly Burmese and Nepali. So, I thing that the model that Hope has come up with is a good model because it has been used by others. The model is designed to help people by answer the questions that they have and then they can do stuff on their own they don’t need help. So, for me it is a success that we don’t have the original populations, but it is still working for the next refugee groups that are coming through.

How long have you been with Jericho Road?

I have been with Jericho Road when I went back to school in 2005, then I stopped for about two years, while I was working on Hope and then when Hope merged with Jericho Road, then I came to Jericho Road again.

Did you have any dream about working with refugees or it is something your parents chose for you?

Anna: When I walked into Journeys End the first time, I did not know what refugee was. I found out what refugee was at my job interview. But, being said, my parents have been working hard to make sure we get cross-cultural experiences. So, by the time I graduated from college, I had been to the Caribbean, to Europe, and to Africa. And every single person in my family, I mean all my sisters and parents speak at least two languages and most of us speak two languages, which I think is unusual for an American family.

Now, how do you describe your experience here?

You mean my experience at Jericho Road or Vive?

You said that when you walked into Journey’s End you did not know what refugee was. Now that you get to know them and to interact with them, what is your experience?

To me I wouldn’t have chosen another path than the path I chose because I have learned more from working with refugees than probably they learned from. To me I am very proud. When I look at our city, I see how welcoming we are to refugees and how many opportunities Buffalo has for refugees, and knowing that I am part of that makes me proud. When I look at people who were my clients ten of fifteen years ago and I was getting them off the airplane and they had nothing, and now I see that they have college education, they married and have kids, to me that is amazing and I am part of that even though it was just a small part for a little bit.

Anna, what are the challenges? I understand you speak Swahili but not all refugees speak Swahili and they have different cultures from yours, what are the challenges?

I think the challenges…I just look people as people. I don’t look at people and say they Burmese, they are Nepali or East African. I just look at people and see a person and try to figure out we can talk and communicate. I think there a lot you can say without words so that people can understand. At least, if we can communicate with words then I try to be open, helpful, and try to solve problems.

I think right now it is a particular challenging time for refugees with what is happening in Syria, people have the idea that refugees are different than what they are. I think there is a lot of education to be done. I think it is very hard once you are not refugee to work with refugees even difficult refugees to say that you cannot come in because you are from Syria or Iraq. To me, you can’t say that?

What about the concern of local authorities regarding people’s security?

People should absolutely be concerned about security but they should also educate themselves about what actually the security screenings are because for refugees the security screening is very extensive and part of the problem is that people don’t know enough about who refugees are to understand the process how they got here and what they have to go through to get here. So, having worked with refugees and having an understanding of the system, I have no concern. I don’t think that people are wrong to have concerns, but I think that the answer is to educate themselves about who refugees are and how they got here.

One might say that look, some of the people who have attacked the United Sates or France were refugees who have gone through the same extensive screening you are talking about. How do you respond to that?

If France was attacked and they are accepting the same number or more refugees than before they were attacked, to me the attacks are not connected to refugees, they are not connect to immigration; to me the attacks are connected to terrorism. And terrorism is not about refugees or immigration, it is about extremism and you get that regardless of what country a person comes from and what religion a person is in. They can find that in every religion and you can find that in every country.

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