Syrian refugees ready to help rebuild US towns

Friday 05/02/2016
Buffalo, New York

Buffalo, New York - Ahmed Salam was one of the first refugees from Syria’s brutal civil war to reach Buffalo, a midsize city in upstate New York. Despite a national furore about the possibility of jihadists sneaking into the United States, he praises Ameri­cans for a warm welcome.

“I have not had problems with anybody. When I tell people I’m a refugee, they smile at my face,” said Salam, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “The only concern that we have is that somebody treats us without dignity. We want to live in peace in our country or anywhere else.”

Salam and his family reached the United States in February 2015 after passing rigorous security checks. Fighting in Syria’s civil war forced them to abandon their home in Homs and then their refuge in a suburb of Damascus.

More Syrians will follow, in line with US President Barack Obama’s decision to increase the annual US refugee intake to 85,000. Some alarmists warn that militants will slip into the country as refugees and launch terror attacks.

After the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, business­man Donald Trump, a front runner for the Republican nomination for president, called for a ban on Mus­lims entering the United States. US Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also seeking the Republican nomina­tion, said refugees from “high-risk countries” should be sent back home.

Rhetoric from the campaign trail has not been matched by Salam’s experience in Buffalo. He gets free rent, a monthly welfare check and his three children attend school. He gets free English lessons and will start looking for a job soon, he said.

“We love work, Syrians,” Salam said. “The Syrians, when they move to Egypt or Turkey, they start busi­nesses, they help the economies to grow in those countries.”

This helps explain why Syrians and other refugees were warmly re­ceived in Buffalo.

The city was once an industrial and trading powerhouse of the US north-east but economic shifts saw it fall into decline. Its peak popu­lation of 580,000 in the 1950s has sunk to 259,000 as factories closed in the region known as the “rust belt”.

US refugee agencies target cities such as Buffalo for their relatively cheap rent. The Buffalo area re­ceived 1,380 of the 4,085 refugees — mostly from Iraq, Somalia, Bhutan, Myanmar and Congo — to settle in New York state in 2014.

Some Buffalo residents say the newcomers provide positive change for the city. The West Side neigh­bourhood of the city, where many refugees live, was once a jumble of dilapidated homes and streets fre­quented by drug dealers and pros­titutes.

“It was a situation of high unem­ployment, low incomes, economic stress and related problems, drug use and delinquency,” said West Side resident Tim Tielman. “Some streets were no-go zones for my children after dark in the ‘80s. That’s not the case today.”

The newcomers have revamped crumbling properties and opened mobile phone stores, exotic super­markets and eateries, giving locals a chance to sample everything from Ethiopian flatbread to fermented Burmese seafood.

According to a 2013 report by the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Coun­cil of the Americas called Bringing Vitality to Main Street, more than 16% of High Street businesses in Buf­falo are owned by entrepreneurs from overseas.

Not everyone agrees that refugees are good for Buffalo. Erie County lawmaker Joseph Lorigo warned of “the risk to our community” of Syrians. The area had a brush with Islamist militancy in 2002, when the so-called Lackawanna Six were arrested for attending an al-Qaeda training camp.

For Suad Obsiye, 51, there have been hiccups along the way but Buf­falo is working out. She fled her na­tive Somalia in the 1990s. Despite rhetoric from some politicians, up­state New York is a good place to call home, she said.

“Buffalo city is a place of refuge. Many refugees are successful eco­nomically and create jobs,” Obsiye said. “Politicians will say anything to get elected. But why criticise a whole community of people? Mus­lims in America are taxpayers and serve in the military.”