Buffalonian of the Week: Steven Sanyu

Steven Sanyu, the founder and president of the non-profit Burmese Community Services, has been in Buffalo since 2000—he was one of the first Burmese refugees assigned to Buffalo through the federal resettlement system. He says that there are around 8,500 Burmese people here now. And Sanyu, 45, is committed to helping them. In addition to working as an interpreter and raising his own family, he is always “on call” through Burmese Community Services. [burmesecs.org]

Why is Buffalo such a draw for refugees?

Most refugees come here because they are assigned. Buffalo has the agencies to meet the federal resettlement guidelines. Refugees also come from other states, because of our affordable cost of living. We also have additional organizations, like the Burmese Community Services, to help them after the three to six months of help they get according to federal guidelines. Otherwise how would they get help?

What does your organization do?

Many things. All of our services are free; we specialize in helping the Burmese community. We do referrals, and share information; assist people trying to get citizenship or a green card. The larger agencies can take longer, and there are communication gaps. We helped the city develop a Language Access Plan, to make it easier to communicate with [non-English] speaking people.

What challenges do newer arrivals face?

For both the people, the government, and agencies: language. Cultural knowledge, legal issues, learning how the systems work—most of these people lived in refugee camps.

Many of them don’t know how to drive, or how to use public transportation. Sometimes one person in the family—often the husband/father gets a job. He goes to work, then the others are at home. They have to learn from someone else how to use public transportation.

There are physical and mental challenges when the fathers go to work. Physically, they have to take care of everyone. Mentally, it’s difficult too. They have to figure out healthcare and school systems, how to get the kids to the school bus, the dentist. It’s good when they can learn from others who have been here longer.

They are afraid of police in uniform; they don’t trust them. In Asia, there’s a lot of corruption, and people aren’t always treated well. So that stays in their minds. Here, it’s totally different; we have freedom, and laws. We help them understand their rights.

All of the Burmese Community Service people are volunteers—we’re limited in how much we can help. If people need help with paperwork, or need to be interviewed, sometimes I go to their house.

What concerns Burmese people?

Safety is big issue. After a burglary or break-in, they don’t call 911—they call me. I call 911 for them. I advise and interpret for them.

Once the police are there, the newer arrivals think that they should just arrest someone right away. They don’t understand the procedure. I explain that the police have to have evidence. And I explain to the police about the cultural differences; we must educate both sides. It’s very busy for me.

Why do you keep doing it?

In our culture, we aren’t comfortable “selling” ourselves—other people have to recognize us, for ourselves. Here, it’s different…I can say that other people are happy that I am here; and I’m thankful that I can help.

For example, when someone passes away, I communicate on the family’s behalf to help arrange the funeral. Because of things like that, they respect and thank me. They say that if I am not here, they don’t know how they would do those types of things.

I believe we have to do good things for others. Doing this—helping people, and community—is good for the future. I hope that, if someday I’m not here, someone else will continue to do this.

Are Burmese youth assimilating to Western culture and letting go of their family’s culture?

The ones who are born here are. If children are older when they get here, they don’t assimilate as well.

What would you like to see change?

We have already seen how Buffalo’s economy and population are changing because of refugee and immigrant populations. The City communicates well with us. I’ve never heard of any other city like Buffalo, with so many agencies, organizations, institutions, and businesses to work for and with refugees.

My hope is that Burmese Community Services is helping and educating both sides to understand each other better. That the city understands what it is facing, and will treat people better. Also, showing the people: this is the system, the law, and they understand more. Then we will be a better community and a better city. We are like the bridge, between the city and the community.

Jana Eisenberg is a Buffalo-based writer and editor.

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