Leh Play Htoo washes dishes for a living, sometimes finishing his shift at one restaurant and riding the bus across Buffalo to wash dishes at another.
He's happy to have the work. Htoo is one of Buffalo's recent immigrants, arriving in 2010 after his family fled their Burmese village and he spent 11 years in a Thai refugee camp.
Dishwashers occupy the lowest rung on the staff charts of most restaurant kitchens, often working for a little more than minimum wage. Their shifts are filled with scraping, cleaning and sterilizing kitchenware.
For many, dishwashing is a summer job, or a stopgap between "real jobs." For immigrants like Htoo, it's the first step toward building a new life in Buffalo.
Refugee agency Journey's End has placed about 100 refugees into jobs at 35 restaurants in the last 15 months, said Jeff Ogilvie, Journey's End job developer.
"Many employers say their work ethic is second to none, because they appreciate this greatly," said Briana Popek, agency employment specialist.
Htoo works at The Lunchbox, in the Tri-Main Building, and has a second job washing dishes at Left Bank. Amy McCarthy, owner of The Lunchbox, has hired other Burmese immigrants in her kitchen. "They show up, and they're hard workers. You don't get that from too many young kids in the industry," she said. "They appreciate the work."
Htoo is a small, wiry man of 26 who's quick to crack a smile. The News asked him about his life through Journey's End interpreter Eh Knyaw.
Htoo and his family are Karens, part of Burma's largest ethnic minority. When government troops attacked their farming village, his parents and their six children fled for Thailand.
There, the only jobs available were as day laborers for private citizens.
After 11 years, the Department of Homeland Security allowed Htoo to enter the United States, directing him to Buffalo. He has his U.S. citizenship and he and his wife are raising their son and daughter on West Ferry Street. The rest of his family has been admitted to the United States as well.
Instead of relying on public assistance, Htoo went to work to support his family. His first goal is buying a car.
He washes dishes because the agency helped him get the work. He started at Left Bank in January and The Lunchbox in March. Between them, he works about 45 hours a week, and still doesn't think he is working hard.
On days off he stays home with the kids. He said he doesn't mind the snow. The hardest part is the language barrier. When someone at work wants to tell him what to do, it can take some explaining.
He is asked what he thinks he will be doing in five years. After the interpreter talked, he pauses, and laughs again. "As a refugee, they don't know anything about the future, what will happen tomorrow. So it is hard for them when they get here to answer these kind of questions," said interpreter Knyaw.
In five years time, if Htoo's English doesn't improve, he will still be washing dishes. Does that mean he will take English lessons? he is asked.
Now Htoo is only interested in working, the interpreter said. "He just wants to work."