Previous to these concurrent positions,
Lazarin was an immigration defense
attorney with the Volunteer Lawyers
Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization
that provides civil legal assistance to
Saladi Shebule is a native of Somalia who spent much of his childhood in
a Kenyan refugee camp. He has been in
Buffalo since 2004, and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from
Daemen College. He works with Buffalo Public Schools as a liaison to newly
arriving students and families.
Before returning to his hometown of Buffalo, John Starkey, principal of Lafayette International High
School #207 advocated for Hudson Valley migrant workers. As principal of
LaGuardia Community College’s International High School in Queens, New
York, he led turnaround efforts at two
Bronx high schools.
How did Buffalo become as
immigrant- and refugee-friendly as
Denise Phillips Beehag: We have
a history of welcoming immigrants;
decades ago, they were Polish, Irish German, Italian. People have seen that the
newer refugees are having a positive
impact on the city—reversing population
decline and revitalizing neighborhoods.
Jessica Lazarin: The residents of
the city have been historically open, welcoming, accepting; there is the expectation that newcomers have needs, and
that by working together we can meet
them. Nationally now, when I go to conferences, Buffalo is getting highlighted
for that—showing off how welcoming we
are. Outside of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Mayor
Brown’s Office for New Americans is the
only such office in the state.
Saladi Shebule: It is more accepting than many places, largely due to
combination of the number of people
from abroad here—immigrants and refugees—and the resettlement agencies
that work with these individuals. In
general, Buffalo has done great things,
opening its doors, accommodating, and
creating opportunities for refugees.
John Starkey: Partly because Buffalo had hard times for so long, there
isn’t the misperception that everything
was good up until any specific group of
refugees or immigrants came. With the
more recent immigrants' and refugees’
arrival, some of Buffalo’s most dilapidated areas were rejuvenated. People
appreciate their new neighbors’ old-world values.
What are we doing to welcome these
DPB: Our county executive and
mayor are pro refugee and immigrant.
Our officials say publically, “We value
you.” They get to know them, attend
events, help resettlement agencies. The
public is very supportive; many say
they don’t like the anti-immigration
sentiment we're seeing at the nation-
al level. People—employers, landlords
and general citizens—are calling us and
asking how they can help.
JL: It’s welcoming because of its
people. The city holds several annual
events formally recognizing newcomers and others’ contributions. There’s
Immigrant Heritage month, which was
inaugurated in 2015. And, now that the
ONA officially has a budget, we’re joining the national organization, Welcoming America.
SS: In addition to more collaboration among the resettlement agencies,
which only assist you for a limited time,
there are established and emerging eth-nic-based community organizations
drawing people here—those community organizations can provide ongoing
assistance. Attracting and retaining refugees is a great start.
I was on the steering committee
for the city’s Office of New Americans.
The city is doing its part too—getting
to know the newcomers, what their
needs are. Also some elected officials,
like Assemblyman Sean Ryan, are fighting tirelessly in Albany to secure funding for agencies to be able to provide
services for refugees.
JS: The school superintendent’s
New Educational Bargain is a pact
between the district, parents, and students—giving students and parents
certain responsibilities. In return,
the district promises to offer things
like community schools with academic, language, and art opportunities for
families and parents. We’ve increased
cultural and linguistic competency in
How are we doing?
DPB: Every day, I see people getting jobs. People who have been here
for ten years tell us that they now own
a home, their kids are going to college.
The changes in Buffalo have a lot to do
with it; our clients are able to be a part
JL: We get a high mark. Our gov-
ernment is vocal in its support. Initial-
ly, I didn’t understand the impact on
the community groups when the may-
or or other government representative
attends their events. Many of them say
things like, “Having government rec-
ognition is so important to us; we left
our nations because of how our govern-
ment treated us.”
The ONA is getting to know the
different groups. Some are more
In addition to directing the Mayor’s
Office of New Americans (ONA), Jessica
Lazarin is deputy corporation counsel
for the City of Buffalo Law Department.