Stranded in South Africa, a Congolese mother of three applied to resettle her family in the U.S. But she made a mistake on her paperwork. Her application was denied.
She was given an ultimatum. She could reapply, which would take months or even years. If successful, both she and her kids would be able to start a new life in the U.S. But nothing was guaranteed.
Her other option? An unthinkable decision. She could go by herself and leave her children behind, or send them on their own.
She chose to send her kids to live with her brother in Buffalo while she stayed behind in the Congo. That decision separated her family but gave her children a chance at a safer and more favorable life. One of her children went on to be a valedictorian in high school, another a salutatorian.
She never found out.
Shortly after their resettlement, she died without her kids by her side.
“It’s a sad story,” said Kathy Spillman, who relayed it. “But there’s not much uplifting about being a refugee.”
Spillman is director of community outreach at Journey’s End, a Buffalo-based nonprofit organization that assists with the relocation of refugees from around the world in the Buffalo area. Journey’s End also assists with legal services, housing, education, employment and entrepreneurship, according to the organization’s 2020 annual report. Despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic, Journey’s End still assisted in the relocation of 55 refugees to Buffalo in 2020.
Most recently, thousands of Afghan refugees have applied for asylum in the U.S. following the U.S. military’s August withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent Taliban takeover. Afghans were even recorded clinging to the outside of a U.S. military aircraft taking off from Kabul International Airport. At least two fell to their deaths, according to The Guardian.
Some of the lucky few have found their way to Buffalo. Approximately 10,000 refugees have been relocated to the Queen City since 2001, according to the City of Buffalo’s 2016 New Americans Study.
And that number is only increasing. Gov. Kathy Hochul announced last September that 335 Afghan refugees would make Buffalo their new home, according to WGRZ. Many would make the trek with the assistance of local nonprofit organizations like Journey’s End.
Spillman expects that number to increase this year.
“We do have a fairly established Afghan community here,” Spillman said. “It’s not as large as some other cities, but this is a desirable place for them to be.”
One refugee, Ahmad Rashid, came to the U.S. at the age of 17 to join that “established Afghan community.”
Rashid’s family endured daily gunfire and explosions in Afghanistan. But they did not seek refuge until Rashid’s father, an interpreter working for the U.S. military, started receiving death threats.
When they were able to leave, they left quickly.
“I hadn’t had time to say goodbye to family members. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friends in high school,” Rashid said. “I left everything behind.”
Soon after arriving in the U.S., Journey’s End connected Rashid’s family with a caseworker, who helped his family secure housing, learn the public transportation system and re-enter schooling.
“Since day one, when I arrived, I wanted to make a better life for myself and my family,” Rashid said. “So, after a month and a half of living in Buffalo, at 17, I decided to start working at an Indian restaurant… I didn’t know the language [English], but I could speak and communicate with them in Hindi.
“Language was the hardest for me and my family. It took me roughly a year and a half to get a hold of the language and feel comfortable talking to people.”
Journey’s End helped him enroll in GED and English classes that allowed him to overcome the language barrier.
Much of Rashid’s family is still stuck in Afghanistan. He has tried to sponsor them.
“I’m still waiting to hear back from the government,” he said.
Fewer than 1% of refugees who apply for asylum in the U.S. are resettled. Even when asylum-seeking families’ applications are accepted, there are still cases where not every family member makes it.
“It’s hard to make the case that the U.S. is doing enough if it’s doing less than anyone else,” Jacob Kathman, a professor of Comparative Politics and International Relations and the chair of UB’s political science department, said. “[The U.S.] is the wealthiest country in the world, it’s the most powerful country in the world and it has a lot of room. There’s just a lot of resources that can be put toward aiding large numbers of people in need.”
The U.S. holds 30% of the world’s total wealth, according to Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Data Book, which is nearly double that of the next wealthiest nation, China, which holds 18%. In addition, the U.S. is the third-largest nation in square miles and has the most powerful military in the world, according to Statista.
“Where that becomes difficult for some policymakers is, well, ‘Until what point [do we help refugees]?’” Kathman said. “Refugees ostensibly are people to be returned to their country once the political conflict or reason for their initial fleeing the country has been resolved, but I think you would be hard-pressed to find policymakers who believe without a doubt that it is [the] U.S.’s responsibility in all cases to resolve those types of problems.
“It’s probably not on the minds of most policymakers to resolve the problems that create [refugee] movement in the first place, so there can be a lack of political will, I think, when it comes to refugee policy. But if there is a country that has the ability to accommodate large numbers of refugees, it would be the U.S.”
“We need to solve the problems that are causing them to flee in the first place,” she said. “There has to be political will to do that.”
Spillman is no stranger to politics. She was raised in Buffalo but traveled the world for many years, working in politics and international relations. She came back and began working with Journey’s End in 2015.
“I was in the camps in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza… it’s a miserable existence being a refugee,” Spillman said. “I mean, that’s how I got interested in the refugee issue in the first place.”
But whether in Buffalo or the Middle East, providing for refugees is challenging. Journey’s End receives 75% of its funding in grants but still relies on donations to maintain its services. Not to mention the organization needs manpower — everything from general volunteers to “contacts in real estate.”
“It may sound laughable, but I’m half serious about it,” Spillman said. “We really need tips on where there’s affordable, decent housing that’s up to code. And we just need volunteers to help set up apartments and to maybe adopt the family for three months, you know, especially with the Afghan evacuation. A lot of them came literally with the clothes on their backs because they had to leave so, so quickly.”
When Rashid arrived in Buffalo, an apartment was found for his family. They talked over the lease, but not all was made clear.
“I didn’t know what month-to-month was,” he said. “We got settled in the West Side of Buffalo… after seeing the situation I said that I was not going to live here anymore.”
Rashid found a listing in North Buffalo through a real estate agent, but with little credit and few people to vouch for his family, securing a home was difficult.
“It was hard, and my English was not good,” Rashid said. “I just stood in front of her [the real estate agent] and said, ‘Please, rent me this house.’”
Rashid is currently employed as a patient care technician at Roswell Park. He aspires to build clinics in Afghanistan and wants to share the knowledge he has learned from his experiences with others.
“If you see an immigrant [or] a refugee, you can help in any way,” Rashid said. “Just teaching them and volunteering time or just showing them around, being nice to them, just smiling at them. And it makes a huge difference.”
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