Unlike immigrants of years ago, many modern refugees aren’t setting out for America in light of economic opportunity or better quality of life. Violence in all corners of the world pushes people from their homes to evade death. When they arrive in their new environment, refugees are apt to be hastily and erroneously judged as helpless or even incompetent.
The influx of refugees in Buffalo makes up a largely untapped resource of diverse skills that has the potential to make positive contributions locally and beyond.
Journey’s End Refugee Services of Buffalo is an organization that is familiar with the needs of refugees as well as their capabilities.
More than a year ago, Journey’s End welcomed George Kasonko, a Congolese refugee, and his mother and younger brother to America.
“Journey’s End received us from where we came from and provided us with housing, and I was able to attend school,” said George. “They helped me do a lot of stuff and get involved.”
George is getting his education from a program at Journey’s End called Making a Connection (MAC). This form of instruction was created for older teenagers that would otherwise enter the public school system as ninth-graders.
Refugees who go into traditional high schools as young adults and turn 20 before they graduate are often set up to fail in an environment unsuited to their individual needs. As an alternative, MAC offers students internships, job training, ESL (English as a second language) classes, as well as other classroom instruction.
Such a tailored educational opportunity helps prepare young refugees like George to become productive, responsible members of their new communities. Their studies can help them in the future, such as pursuing a higher education.
From his aspirations to study biochemistry, physics and astronomy, it’s evident that George values his education. Although he was born in the African country of the Democratic Republic of Congo, George went to school and learned English in Uganda.
“When I was attending school in Uganda, my mom was in Congo, working,” George said. “It seemed that there was a war going on there. She was so worried for us that she came and picked us up from Uganda and from there to Kenya, then Ethiopia.”
With his departure from Uganda, George’s life as a refugee commenced.
For three years, the family lived in a refugee camp that didn’t have electricity, and posed hazards such as snakes. While they resided there, the family “could barely find enough food” to survive in the overpopulated camp. George lost two years of schooling.
Among other necessities, camaraderie also was lacking in the harsh forest setting. “Everyone is against you there … everyone will bully you,” he said, while maintaining an unassuming perspective.
“You might find someone who understands you and connects with you very well, but some are so rude,” he said. “They might have their own problems and they don’t like to share their problems … because they have experienced a tough life. I consider that because I don’t know.”
With the assistance of Journey’s End, George and his family found an apartment and have been living in Buffalo for about a year and a half.
George’s life now consists of academics, watching sporting events, practicing his fencing skills and adjusting to a Buffalo trademark – snow. A lot of it. He’s also had the opportunity to meet a diverse group of friends from Burma, Yemen, Iraq and America.
Of his current circumstances, he said, “I think everything comes slow, and even if I don’t get everything (I want), we’ll still be able to get everything we need.”
Organizations like Journey’s End support refugees and help them thrive in their new settings, and refugees reciprocate with hard work and ingenuity. With a higher population, there are more consumers for area businesses. Refugees also set up their own businesses and employ agricultural skills to develop urban farms.
The faith, dedication and perseverance of those like George and his family could help them become assets to their communities, if they aren’t already. Refugees bring skills and talents that are far too valuable to be lost in assimilation, and are often some of the kindest people you’ve ever met.
To find out more information about Journey’s End or for volunteer opportunities, visit www.jersbuffalo.org.
Mary Catalfamo is a junior at Cardinal O’Hara High School.