When the Mayor’s Office launched The City of Buffalo Office of New Americans (ONA) in April of 2015, it came at a time when the city’s foreign-born population had grown by 95 percent between 2006 and 2013. Demand for city services by newcomers has only continued to grow as the city, which is a preferred refugee resettlement site, takes in an increasing number of immigrants and refugees annually. In response, the ONA was formed to better coordinate the various city agencies to better meet this demand and adapt to the needs of immigrant and refugee communities.
The ONA serves an important, but sometimes confusing role in supporting the city’s growing refugee and immigrant community. It is often unclear for many new residents what the Office can do for them. To discuss and clarify what the office does—and doesn’t— do, we spoke with ONA Director Jessica Lazarin who also serves as Deputy Corporation Counsel for the Law Department for the City of Buffalo.
What services does the Office provide?
The ONA is an office designated to help make already-existing City of Buffalo services accessible to the City’s growing refugee and immigrant communities. The Office aims to be informative when it comes to city services and to assist in access to those services so that new residents can take advantage of everything the City has to offer, just like any other city resident would.
The ONA also develops direct communication and relationships with the City’s many immigrant communities and their community leaders so that issues can be brought to the City’s attention. It’s our goal to achieve creative solutions to address issues that are brought to the ONA by our community leaders. It’s also our goal to listen to their concerns and refer them to other agencies and organizations within the area that can also help their needs.
We’re sometimes mistaken for a social services office. In Buffalo, social services such as temporary housing and cash assistance, Medicaid benefits and food benefits are provided by the Erie County Department of Social Services. When we are contacted for those services, we share the information for the County and have a good relationship with a number of County departments who also seek to serve the immigrant community.
Importantly, it is an office that seeks input and partnership with the immigrant and refugee community organizations so that any solutions or plans the Office takes are done with their support and with their advice. We work to develop partnerships with community leaders so that our work involves the community’s perspective. The Office also seeks to ensure that Buffalo remains a welcoming city and that it shares the positive contributions of our immigrant communities with other cities across the U.S. and on an international scale.
An example of our work came at a time when there were a number of burglaries in immigrant neighborhoods on the West Side. ONA worked with Buffalo Police Department to organize Safety Tip meetings and police sessions on how to report to 911 because the local community leaders saw a need for that kind of information. The ONA also partnered with BPD and with Erie County to hold community meetings where the design for the city Language ID card was decided upon with the advice and help of the community.
What are the common misconceptions about the office?
We’re sometimes mistaken for a social services office. In Buffalo, social services such as temporary housing and cash assistance, Medicaid benefits and food benefits are provided by the Erie County Department of Social Services. When we are contacted for those services, we share the information for the County and have a good relationship with a number of County departments who also seek to serve the immigrant community. If immigrant residents have difficulty accessing services, we are able to get involved and refer them to the right person, department or agency that can help.
It’s our goal to achieve creative solutions to address issues that are brought to the ONA by our community leaders. It’s also our goal to listen to their concerns and refer them to other agencies and organizations within the area that can also help their needs.
It can be confusing to a new city resident because the City of Buffalo does offer some of the same programs that the County does, such as a Summer Youth Program and programs for senior citizens at city community centers. Whatever the question is, we do our best to refer the individual or group to the right organizations to meet their needs.
With the large number of organizations in Buffalo and government agencies already assisting refugees and immigrants, what does the Office offer that these organizations and agencies do not?
The Office offers direct access to the Mayor, direct access to members of the Common Council and direct access to city departments that refugees and immigrant community groups reach out to as they pursue goals within their community.
For example, many growing communities are working with us to plan their events in the City of Buffalo, and we facilitate invitations for the Mayor to attend whenever possible and coordinate between the City’s Office of Special Events, the Buffalo Police Department and other offices to meet the needs that are brought to us.
How many refugees and immigrants have made use of the Office’s services since it opened? Is this number accelerating?
Since we are not a service-based office, we do not track information on who comes to us for help. It’s our goal to be informative so that every resident can take advantage of what Buffalo offers and we look to build good relationships with the refugee and immigrant communities and community leaders that are in the City.
What are some past, recent, and future initiatives that the Office is working on?
A past initiative we’re very proud of has to do with the Buffalo Police Department’s Language Access Plan. This helped bring the Buffalo Police Department and the immigrant and refugee community together. In the summer of 2016, President Barack Obama’s White House Task Force on New Americans highlighted the Buffalo Police Department’s Language Access Plan as a best practice among linguistic integration and education in the U.S.
An ongoing initiative of the ONA is to continuously strive to keep the City of Buffalo in the spotlight as a welcoming community. The ONA has an annual Immigrant Heritage Month event in June and an annual Welcoming Week event in September. The ONA also attends and facilitates the Mayor’s attendance at a number of cultural celebrations and events such as World Refugee Day, Chin National Day and Zomi National Day, Somali-Bantu Community Day and the Burmese Water Festival.
It’s our goal to be informative so that every resident can take advantage of what Buffalo offers and we look to build good relationships with the refugee and immigrant communities and community leaders that are in the City.
Another ongoing initiative is that the ONA brings employment announcements and opportunities to community members. It’s our goal to make sure that the immigrant community is aware of the job and education services in the City.
One future initiative has to do with informative videos made for the immigrant community on topics of Public Speaking, How to Apply for a Grant, and How to Establish a 501(c)(3). These are issues that many community leaders have questions about and so we’ve made it a goal to gather the necessary information and put it together for the benefit of community leaders seeking to establish and grow their community organizations.