Catholic Charities program serves as Buffalo beacon for refugees, immigrants
Immigration became a major focal point throughout the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, and since the inauguration of Donald Trump in January, questions surrounding those trying to come to the United States, especially refugees, has remained a hot-button issue.
However, helping refugees fleeing conflict-torn areas is nothing new for Catholic Charities of Buffalo.
Last year, the nonprofit organization resettled 655 refugees from 18 countries through its Immigration and Refugee Assistance Program, according to Catholic Charities. One of the newest arrivals is Niyonzima Focus, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Focus came to Buffalo in February from a refugee camp in Uganda, where he spent 18 years before completing the immigration process. He first got to Uganda when he was 6 years old, and while he said life in the camp was tolerable, with medicine and education available, he had little freedom there.
“In the camp, you are not authorized to own, for example, a car or a vehicle when you are a refugee,” Focus said. “You’re not supposed to carry out business, and then they give you the boundary where you are not supposed to cross, as a refugee, because you are not a resident of the country.” To get out of that camp was an exhaustive process, which, for Focus, began in 2013. Refugees, including those settled by Catholic Charities, are subject to strict vetting processes, including security and background checks, as well as a recap of their life story. Finally, the refugee applicants are asked why they think coming to the United States would better their lives.
Focus said his process, although a few years long, was relatively smooth. However, according to Edvin Nzamwita, Focus’ IRAP case manager, said many refugees don’t have such an easy time. Nzamwita said slight discrepancies in an applicant’s story can cause a months- or years-long backup in their cases.
“I know many people who were refugees but were denied to come to the U.S. or to Europe because sometimes they would findaflawintheirstoryoryoudon’tremember everything which happened,” he said.
Politicians and pundits in favor of a tightening of immigration, including the resettlement of refugees to the United States, have rallied around the idea of “extreme vetting” and a temporary ban for people coming from a handful of countries — Somalia, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Sudan — considered acute security risks by the Trump administration.
However, Nzamwita said the vetting process is already laborious and that for people coming from war zones or politically unstable areas, simply going back to retrieve a forgotten document is next to impossible.
“You will see that many refugees they have the same dates [on applications] because they lost all the paperwork in the wars, and the war is still there,” he said. “They can’t go back and get the paperwork. So how do you check people who fled like Congo, and in Congo there is a war going on there still. … It’s hard.”
Bill Sukaly, who also works in the IRAP program, agreed with Nzamwita’s assessment, and said for many Americans, immigration from the country’s southern border, for example, blends with refugee resettlement programs. Additionally, he said he sometimes hears misconceptions about the program and the people it serves.
“They’re all enrolled in English language courses. They’re all required to seek employment,” Sukaly said. “The big myth that refugees are coming and they’re never learning English, that they’re not going to work, that’s the whole purpose of our program, to get clients self-sufficient.” That next step in the process has already started for Focus. He said he is happy to be in Buffalo and has felt welcomed by the people he’s met so far.
“I feel proud to be here, and what I would like to do next is to get the qualification to allow me to stay as a permanent resident,” Focus said.
IRAP case managers will put Focus on the road to do just that, getting paperwork, documentation and medical appointments scheduled and fulfilled for the residency journey that can again take years.
Sukaly said he has no doubt that Focus, like the scores of other immigrants and refugees Catholic Charities serves, will fit in in his new home. According to Sukaly, he sees “one success story after another.”
“If you come back and talk to Focus a year from now, I’m sure he’ll be working and being prosperous,” he said. “You’ll be amazed.”