Karen is the Executive Director of Journey’s End Refugee Services here in Buffalo. If you don’t know it already, we have a good number of refugees that have found a home here in Buffalo. And in true Buffalo fashion, we have found a place for them and accepted them into our community. There is a lot of hard work that goes into bringing refugees to Buffalo and getting them integrated into our society, which can only pale in comparison to the path that these people must take to get here. Please take a few minutes to learn more about Karen, and see if there is something that you can do to help these new members of our community feel more at home.
A brief history on Karen
“I originally grew up in the West Seneca. I loved growing up here and really appreciated the family atmosphere and I was always proud to be from Buffalo. But I did move to the D.C. area for a couple of years. I really liked D.C. but it always felt a little soulless to me because so many people that we met weren’t from there. After D.C., my husband (boyfriend at the time) and I decided to move to San Francisco from 2005-2006. On the rare opportunity that we get to go back it still feels like home. A lot of the friends we met there are native San Franciscan. Most of our friends were blue collar. To be able to see San Francisco through their eyes and experiences, I felt really lucky to see that. It’s an amazing place. While out there I decided to go back to school, but couldn’t afford it there so we moved back to Buffalo. During my schooling I was employed at a small immigration law firm where we did mostly employment based work. I liked the work but felt pretty unfulfilled by it. Most of my clients were still living abroad so most of my interaction with them was over the phone or through email. In 2010 I quit.”
“The agency is something I’m really passionate about. Not just the clients, but the staff as well. Close to half of our staff is foreign born. Most of those are refugees, or they came over through another humanitarian category, an SIV. People in that category most often come because they helped interpret for the U.S. armed forces in either Iraq or Afghanistan. We are really truly like a family here. I don’t say that lightly. Many of our staff, we helped them find their first apartment, we picked them up at the airport, we enrolled their kids in school, we helped bring other family members over, we’ve seen them get their citizenship. It’s amazing. We’ve really become a true family. Doing things outside of work together, celebrating holidays together. It’s really incredible.”
What is your greatest area of need?
“One of the biggest obstacles we still face is people really understanding what refugees actually are. Due to what’s happened in Europe, with refugees flooding there, I think people have the idea that that is what’s going to happen here. But that’s really not the case at all. Getting people to stop and listen to who the refugees are that are coming into the U.S. It’s not people coming over the borders, it doesn’t happen without years of background checks, interviews. I think that is our biggest hurdle.”
How do refugees end up in Buffalo?
“We have two national offices that are called our voluntary agencies. VOLAG for Short. Our agency has two of them. One is called Episcopal Migration ministries and the other is Church World Service. Every local resettlement agency has these agencies that they are affiliated with. There are nine national resettlement agencies that communicate with the government and decide which cases to take. It’s the Department Of State and these agencies that sit around the table once a month and decide which cases to take. There’s obviously more to it than that. Everyone has numbers they need to fill. But it is basically ‘you take this, you take that’ and then they distribute to the local affiliates across the country using a similar process. They do make an effort to resettle the cases in a way that takes into consideration if the client has family ties to a particular area. So we as an agency don’t have a say in which clients are actually resettled through us unless we have that close family tie. If we know that we resettled someone else’s brother and that we know another case is coming through. We can say to our national agency, ‘can you look for this case and if possible, resettle them through our agency in Buffalo.'”
How involved are you with the refugees?
“I have less direct involvement since becoming the Executive Director than when I was running the legal program. We have the resettlement department, reception and placement that has the first contact with the clients. They provide direct case management for 90 days as contacted by Dept. Of State. Concurrently, we have an employment department helping to find jobs as soon as possible. We have an education department that does ESL as well as an alternative to high school. So, anybody who needs ESL services would be immediately connected to that department. We try to do more of a wrap around service. If case management couldn’t provide everything, one of the other departments might. We couldn’t possibly do everything, nor do we want to. So when another agency is more appropriate we are making those linkages as soon as we can.”
Do any particular cases stand out to you?
“We have happy cases where we see somebody get their citizenship. That ranks around one of the best moments. If you haven’t been to a citizenship event, they are so emotional and you feel so prideful for the people and what they are gaining. A lot of our clients have never been a citizen anywhere or have had their citizenship stripped from them. For them to become a U.S. Citizen is really emotional. Those cases are fantastic. Cases where we are able to bring family reunification. It’s hard to be whole when someone has to leave their spouse or child behind. Some of the more difficult cases also, unfortunately, stick out. For me, doing the legal work, the legal department doesn’t specifically serve refugees but rather any low income immigrant. Some of the case work we do there is for asylum seekers. The difference between refugees and asylum seekers is that refugees processing is done abroad. They go through a whole process and enter the U.S. in refugee status. They have certain benefits they receive when entering into the U.S. including the right to work. Asylum seekers have to meet the same standards that a refugee does regarding their persecution but their status isn’t granted until they are already here. In order to make the application for an asylum seeker, you have to hear their whole story about the persecution they’ve experience or anticipate and you really hear the worst of humanity. Terrible, terrible things.”
How has Buffalo reacted to the incoming refugees?
What are ways people can help?
“We are always looking for donations. For every case that comes in we need to provide housing. So if you are a landlord or know landlords that have affordable, safe, housing that is public transit accessible and furnishing (not beds). Coats and warm clothing. We have a lot of volunteering opportunities for 1 time or long term volunteering. Tutoring, mentorship opportunities. Like us on Facebook . We put events and drives on Facebook.”
“On November 12th at 4pm we have Buffalo’s First Thanksgiving. We invite Buffalo’s new refugees to come for their first Thanksgiving in the US at Nichols.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“I was expected to go to college. I don’t want to say it was a waste of money. But I wish I had done the community college route for two years until I figured things out because loans at a state school are so expensive and that limits you being able to take those chances.”