We know that statistics cannot tell the full story of immigration, people do. Through this project, we’ll meet some people who have made Buffalo home and learn about their journey, struggles, accomplishments, hopes and dreams through their words, experiences and ideas.
This video series profiles people who have made their way to Buffalo recently from countries such as Burma, Somalia, Iraq and Vietnam but we'll also introduce you to people who's ancestors made their way Buffalo via Italy, Ireland, Poland and Germany decades ago.
Making Buffalo Home
Hassan Al-Mufti | Making Buffalo Home
Meet Hassan from Iraq, who spent years as a refugee before making Buffalo home.
Born in Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, Hassan Al-Mufti took an interest in music at a very young age. When he was just six years old, Hassan’s parents enrolled him at the Music and Ballet School of Baghdad where he partook in an intensive after school music program studying piano.
By the time he was a teenager, life changed for Hassan and his family as they became exposed to the many atrocities of war during the 1980s and 90s. To this day, Hassan can vividly recall this difficult time of his life. “I still remember the heavy bombing of Baghdad by the coalition forces. Couldn’t help but wonder how could the western world produce such a beautiful work of Beethoven and Brahms and Chopin…at the same time have the means of destruction like this,” he says. Hassan also lost his brother, grandmother, and father during this time adding to the devastation witnessed by his family.
Because of the Iraqi involvement in the war, Hassan’s dreams of representing his country as a pianist were dashed. The war resulted in severed ties with the Soviet Union and the defunding of the music program. Hassan says, “So the aspiration of studying abroad and to become a pianist where I can represent my country on the international stage was an idea I could no longer entertain, and as any Iraqi who lived at that time, our childhood dreams vanished.”
While he wasn’t able to continue with the music program, Hassan still practiced the piano and managed to attend the University of Baghdad where he graduated with a degree in musicology. However, following the first Gulf War, life at this time was unbearable for Hassan and his family. He knew that seeking out a better life in a different country was “inevitable”.
In 1995, Hassan received an invitation to play a concert in Amman, Jordan. Knowing he couldn’t bear to return to Baghdad, he decided to stay and make a life for himself. He lived in Amman for six years before applying for refugee status and just two weeks after September 11, 2001, he arrived in the United States. Hassan was concerned about coming to the U.S. during this time period, saying, “The country was boiling at that time, and I was very nervous about it, because you know, after all these years of waiting, dreaming about finally I go to a place where I can study piano or music and improve my life, and here I am, I come to such a trying time in the history of the US.”
Though Hassan was nervous about coming to the United States at such a difficult time, it had always been his dream to play and study in America. He received nothing but respect, kindness, and welcoming from day one. Hassan arrived with only 20 dollars in his pocket and moved to Buffalo as part of the resettlement plan facilitated by the International Institute of Buffalo where he immediately fell in love with the city.
He got a job at the Community Music School of Buffalo where he began teaching piano while also taking lessons from the chair of the piano department, Kenneth Atkinson. During this time, Atkinson also taught him about the history of the United States as well as the development of music and piano schools throughout the world. Hassan’s time spent with Atkinson helped him not only become a better piano player, but also a better teacher. “He really managed to strengthen my weakness and polish my skills for better performances,” he said of Atkinson.
Upon Atkinson’s retirement in 2012, Hassan was named chair of the piano department of the Community Music School of Buffalo. Now, Hassan just hopes to help his students learn and further their ability so that they, too, can become great pianists. Hassan says of his students, “They want to further their education in music and piano in prestigious places in the US, and I'm just happy to help. I just hope that I could be influential on them the same way my teachers influenced me before."
Since coming to Buffalo nearly 20 years ago, he met and married his wife, and sponsored family members to come to America as well, including his mother.Hassan is proud to call Buffalo home. “I consider Buffalo home because of what Buffalo had to offer. Stability, security, peace, quiet, education, and love.”
Making Buffalo Home
Kassim Kassim | Making Buffalo Home
Meet Kassim, from Somalia, who spent years as a refugee before making Buffalo home.
In Buffalo, NY, Kassim is about to enter his senior year at Lafayette International Community High School, where most students are foreign-born. At 18 years old, he’s endured more heart-breaking loss and struggle than most his age.
Kassim was born in Mogadishu, the capitol city of Somalia, during a long and turbulent civil war that still exists today. By the time he was six years old, Islamic extremist groups who opposed the Somali government were murdering hundreds and committing regular acts of terror. Thousands were fleeing due to the fighting, the drought, and famine. Kassim and his family were victims of this horrific violence. Late one afternoon, men rushed into the family home, armed with weapons, and brutally murdered his father while the entire family watched, including Kassim. He’ll never know why those men spared the rest of his family.
Tragedy left them fearing for their lives as the family fled to Ethiopia, where they spent the next eight years in a refugee camp. Life was difficult for Kassim, his mother, and his siblings. He struggled with the memory of his father. In the camp, life was only slightly better. They experienced violence, crime and corruption. His mother was attacked and suffered a broken leg. He remembers an ambulance rushing her to a local hospital, where she had to undergo surgery without proper anesthesia. Kassim was in constant fear for his safety and full of distrust for all people. He spent years dreaming of how he could avenge his father’s death, saying, “My plan growing up was to hurt the people who hurt my Mom and my family,” He continues, “But when they said we were going to America, it took about a year, and my plan started to change. I saw how nice the people were here. I didn’t want to seek revenge anymore.”
It was 2015 when the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) resettled Kassim’s family to the United States, and designated Buffalo, New York as their home. Absolutely everything was new for him – the language, the people, and the experience at a new school. Several years later, he’s beginning to feel like Buffalo is home. He thanks Journey’s End Refugee Services, the local resettlement agency who worked with his family, for making the transition a little easier. Kassim also credits the teachers at his school for how far he’s come.
At Lafayette, many of the students have similar stories to share from their background. The staff works to create a safe space for the kids to learn, to work through the trauma of their past, and to begin embracing life as a teenager in America. Kassim is reluctant to name a “favorite” teacher, saying instead, “They are all equal for me. I like the way they help me and are by my side. They ask how I am doing, they talk to me when I am sad or have a life problem. They understand what I have gone through.”
He plays soccer, performs in a traditional Somali dance group, and in a percussion and dance ensemble with his classmates. These friendships with his peers help Kassim feel a sense of connectedness. He sees how his contributions fit to serve a greater good. “All this drumming, they all are like a part of my family. They are all so nice to me and show me respect. I would also say they are better than my people (from Somalia), because they show respect that I’ve never had before,” he says.
Making Buffalo Home
Beh Meh | Making Buffalo Home
Meet Beh who was born in Myanmar and grew up in a refugee camp before making Buffalo home.
Beh was born in a small village in Myanmar (Burma), a country that has suffered civil war, political oppression and ethnic conflict since the 1950s. She and her family are Karenni, an ethnic minority there.
“I don't really have a memory but my parents often talked about it,” Beh says. “They said during that time that it wasn't very safe. There was a war going on. We were not considered citizens. My dad was a leader in that small village because he was pretty educated so whenever the soldier came to the village, my dad has to be responsible for taking care of them. If not, then our family will be in danger. My dad did not like the responsibility and the pressure that he was under. So he escaped in the middle of the night.”
The family was separated for a year before Beh fled with her mother and older brother with the help of an uncle. Making their way to a refugee camp in Thailand, the family was finally reunited.
“Growing up in refugee camp, all I could remember was my dad constantly remind us to study, study, study,” she said. “My dad was a nurse. He would always say that if we're not educated we will end up being on the farm all day long having to work under the rain and the sun and he doesn't want that for us. So education is very big in our family. My mom didn't get to go to school when she was young. Her family cannot afford it. She had to work in the farm and she did not get a chance to go to school. And my dad had to leave my grandmother to get his education. So for them, for us that get a chance to go to school, it's a really big deal and they don't want us to miss that opportunity.”
The family spent nine difficult years in Thailand and eventually came to the United States in 2009 where they were resettled in Kenmore, New York.
“It was a cultural shock for me when I first arrived to United States,” she recalls. “I think you don't realize it unless you come in from a different culture. When I first got here, everything was just amazing. You have water running right in your living room. Back home I had to wake up really early to get water every morning for the house.”
With unfamiliar surroundings and knowing just a few words of English school was not easy. Beh and her brother were the only students in the school that did not speak English.
“For my entire middle school year, I did not say anything except in ESL class, she remembers. “I just don't talk to anybody. The majority of the time I just listen, absorbing what's going on. When I got to high school I finally speak.”
Despite the language barriers a welcoming teacher fed her quest for learning and inspired her desire to be an educator. “I've always wanted to be either a teacher or a nurse,” she says. “My social study teacher was very welcoming. Even though I did not know any English, she always made me feel welcome in the classroom. At that time, I don't know how to express my gratitude. I went to visit her a few weeks ago and I told her the impact that she made in my life and ever since that I wanted to be an ESL teacher.”
Beh is pursuing her teaching degree at Buffalo State College. She is also active in the Buffalo Immigrant Leadership Team, or BILT, which focuses on increasing the graduation rate and lowering the dropout rate for immigrant and refugee kids. “I want to be an influencer so hopefully someday I'll change somebody's life just like my middle school teacher did in mine,” she says. "I'm very big advocate for education, so I really wish and hope that every kid will get educated and chase their dream."
Beh’s younger brothers were born in the refugee camp but were still very young when the family moved to the United States. Like many immigrant and refugee families, Beh and her family try to preserve their customs and traditions while making a home in their new country.
“Clothing and our language is a big part,” Beh says. “My mom always wears her traditional clothes, she always wears longyis wherever she goes. And my mom is always encouraging my younger brothers to talk and to speak in our native language so that they don't lose it, but they already slowly losing it. If I try to speak to them in Karenni, which is our native language, but it takes them forever trying to understand what I'm saying. The Karenni people that came from the same refugee camp. We hold the same culture. We share the same food. Deeku festival, we celebrate that in August every year. So everybody comes together. Every family puts in a little bit of donation and comes to cook together and they have music and dance."
Making Buffalo Home
Juweria Dahir | Making Buffalo Home
Meet Juweria, who was born in Somalia and grew up in Europe before making Buffalo home.
Juweria was born in Somalia in the 1990s during the civil war. She was only a few weeks old when her family fled Mogadishu and were resettled in Männedorf, a small town in Switzerland. Juweria had a normal Swiss childhood, except her family spoke Somali and Arabic in addition to German.
“I grew up just accepting that I was different,” recalls Juwereia. “We were the only blacks, the only Muslims,” By the time I reached 12, we were then looking for a new home, so we relocated to the UK.”
Her family moved to Birmingham, where they connected with other East African families who also faced similar challenges. There, she added English to her list of languages and eventually went on to university. “I was also looking for love, like any young person,” she says. “I stumbled on my now-husband. He was a Buffalonian. “
She first came to the Buffalo as a European citizen after getting married and continued her post-graduate studies at the University at Buffalo.
Juweria loves Buffalo and has embraced the city. She is diligently working to make the city a better place to live in for all of its residents.
“When I first came to the US, urban planning wasn't really my career path,” she says. “I'm now in the school of architecture and planning, so I pay attention to the built environment, I pay attention to people places, buildings, you name it. Here, you have a better chance of making an impact; you can see the turnaround. I feel like I’ve become part of those who are making the change.”
“Honestly Buffalo is probably the first home that I've felt,” she says. “I'm so invested in the people here, I guess maybe it's my urban planning perspective, I love helping and supporting and being service to people and that means being part of them and letting them know that I'm here to stay. I am a Buffalo girl and I consider myself a Buffalonian. I want to contribute to Buffalo, because it's my home. If I see a challenge in Buffalo, I want to be at the forefront, shoulder to shoulder supporting the work, the contribution, the effort to elevate people, to then be part of that change.”
Juweria became an US citizen last February. “Now that I am a citizen, I am an American by law. I can fully now be a part of the voting process. I can now have a say which really matters to me,” she says.
“I have a conflict in my mind because there's the good and there's the bad. And I'll explain that because the good for me is, when I think of the United States, I see opportunity, the anthem is revolved around freedom, unity. And then sometimes on the ground, it's well who gets to be American and what does American look like?”
“For me as an East African Muslim person, religion and culture is also very intertwined, so my faith is pretty much the first priority for me. For me it's my religion but it's also my identity, so when you Juweria, you also see a picture of Juweria with a hijab, with a head scarf. Just being visibly different, embracing that and then saying I'm a black Muslim woman, I think it's very powerful. I enjoy that, but also it makes me very different and sometimes leads to uncomfortable conversations.”
Sometimes when people first encounter Juweria and hear that she was born in Somalia they assume she is a refugee who recently resettled in Buffalo and may struggle with English.
“When I mention that I work in City Hall, sometimes by default people assume I work in the New American office. The reason why they're asking that question is because they're looking at me and saying, maybe that's where you also work, because you're probably a new American,” says Juweria.
People are often surprised to learn that she is an immigrant from the UK, speaks four languages and will soon hold a master’s degree.
“You can pretty much write a story about me without even talking to me. And then I'll probably have to do a lot of crosses and say, ‘nope, that's not true, and this is not true, and in fact this is definitely not true," she says. So there are different layers, and those are things that we won't know based on just looking at the image of the person. I think I do break those specific stereotypes that people hold. I can wear the identity of being a black woman, identity of being a young mom, just a Muslim woman, a woman who's educated, a woman who's kind of figuring out life for her own and creating her own identity, all those on different things. In Buffalo, if you meet an immigrant or refugee, it's likely they have come through the resettlement process, but then there's also other people like me who've come here by choice, who've come here because maybe they found love or maybe there's better opportunity or maybe they feel like they have a specific skill set that they can contribute."
Making Buffalo Home is a two-year, in-depth WNED | WBFO engagement initiative to inform and raise awareness of immigration for our entire community. The project aims to help the region develop a better understanding of the shared opportunities and challenges we face together as long-time residents and new immigrants and refugees.
Making Buffalo Home is funded by Rich Products Corporation and Rich Family Foundation.