He got the call a few years ago. A woman was wandering, lost, on Buffalo's West Side. She did not speak English. The encounter sparked Mike Long's journey from his South Buffalo roots, more deeply into the streets he patrols, and finally to the Burmese countryside.
A Google search led the Buffalo cop to Jericho Road Ministries, the refugee help center. Within minutes, the lost woman in his patrol car was flanked by translators fluent in Burundi and Swahili. They made sense of the woman's words. Long drove her home – and knew he needed to better understand her world.
“You never want to impose your beliefs on a people, or feel like you know what is best for them,” he said Friday. “I thought I could better serve the refugees here if I saw where they came from.”
In the spirit of helping, the 37-year-old cop took a reverse-immigrant journey. A friend of a friend had started an orphanage in the Burmese countryside. A few months ago, Long joined a caravan bringing medicine, Crocs and clothes to 35 kids. They live in shacks with tied-down tin roofs. He saw people who pull their water from a well. He met kids who wash their clothes and themselves in the same concrete basin. He saw students who strive to master English – the key to a better world.
Many refugees who resettle on the West Side – mostly Burmese and brightly garbed Somalis – live in code-busting bungalows. The homes are mansions compared to what they knew.
The refugees' names might be Thanda or Kyi, but they are the 21st century equivalent of the people who landed at Ellis Island.
Now as then, controversy comes with the newcomers. Critics complain that they take the jobs of “Americans.” Others gripe about refugees' customs, language or legality.
What I have seen are mostly hardscrabble folks clawing their way toward the American dream. Whether it is Muslims of various nationalities uplifting parts of the East Side, or Burmese and Somalis breathing life into the West Side, I think the transfusion of newcomers is healthy for the city.
“I feel a surge of something special happening in Buffalo,” said the lean, brown-haired Long, a cop for five years. “Refugees are a big part of it.”
He also knows what he sees every winter: Recent arrivals, shoulders hunched against the freeze, wearing nothing warmer than a long-sleeved shirt. It is why Long, three years ago, jumped headlong into Jericho Road's annual clothing drive ( He enlisted folks from his Amherst church, the Well. He got fellow cops to donate. On Saturday he will be at West Side Ministries on 14th Street, handing out hats, coats and gloves to a horde of recent transplants.
Last year, the bins were emptied.
“It was the worst feeling,” he said, “to see a mother sitting with a baby in her lap, and we had nothing left to give.”
He does not want it to happen again. These people have come a long way to America. The least we can do is meet them halfway.