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Making Buffalo Home

Community Filmmaker Series

Making Buffalo Home’s Community Filmmaker Series are stories filmed by community members. The video series gives community storytellers a platform to share their unique perspective on culture, identity, traditions, community and making Buffalo home. And they share these perspectives in their own voice.

By turning the role of filmmaker over to individuals we are able to capture the diversity our community from the perspective of the residents. The Community Filmmaker Series is also a meaningful way for Buffalo Toronto Public Media to more closely connect with the community and involve the public with Making Buffalo Home.

Want to become a community filmmaker?

We are looking for community filmmakers to help capture the diversity of our community. Whether you have a little experience in video production or are an accomplished filmmaker, we'd like to hear your ideas. Call the Making Buffalo Home Community Filmmaker project coordinator Beth Fronckowiak at 716-845-7006 or reach her by email at

Community Filmmaker | Tito Ruiz – The Story of Nelson Modi

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Tito Ruiz - The Story of Nelson Modi

Community filmmaker Tito Ruiz shares the story of his Sudanese friend, Nelson Modi.

For more than a decade, I’ve been dedicated to telling the stories of underrepresented individuals and groups through editorial and biographical writing, photography, video, and other creative mediums. Several years ago, I was seeking subjects to document that were working toward a goal and had to overcome adversity to reach it.

Nelson Modi is an immigrant of South Sudanese descent who, as a child, escaped a turbulent life in a Ugandan refugee camp. When I started filming Modi in 2016, he was 21 years old and worked as a stock boy at a corner store that I frequented on the West Side. He lived upstairs with his family. Being from the community, I am familiar with the plethora of challenges and perils that exist for us. Like most inner-city kids, Nelson witnessed many of his peers fall victim to the socio-economic conditions and injustices that plague our surroundings. Nelson wanted better for himself, his family, and his community.

Nelson with his aunt at the Kyangwali Refugee Camp
Photo Credit: Modi Family

Following in his father's footsteps, he was decisive about becoming a professional boxer and pursuing a career in criminal justice. Before he enrolled in the U.S. Marines in 2018, however, Nelson says his mother confessed to him that his father was not a Sudanese police officer as he’d been led to believe. He was actually a rebel who battled the Sudanese government during the country’s second civil war (1983-2005) that resulted in the death of roughly two million people. During a confrontation with the opposition, his father and other rebels were under fire, outnumbered, and forced to retreat to a refugee camp. It was there that Nelson’s parents met.

Nelson’s mother lost her first husband during the second civil war. Like millions of other displaced families, she gathered Nelson’s five older siblings and instantly left behind everything they knew. Not long after they met, his parents escaped to a camp in the Koboko District of Uganda to avoid yet another attack. When the Koboko refugee camp faced an invasion, the family fled again -- this time to the Kyangwali Refugee Camp in Uganda, one of the largest camps in the world. This is where Nelson was born.

“At Kyangwali, my family was given a small plot of land. At the age of two, I started farming corn and sweet potatoes for sustenance and income,” he says. “Eventually, we planted a banana tree and yams. We sold 75% of our crops at the market.”

Life at Kyangwali was difficult and dangerous. The Lord’s Resistance Army was abducting children. Nelson and his siblings often endured hunger, witnessed guerilla warfare, and the murder of innocent civilians. He vividly recalls an instance, at age three, when his family was also confronted with violence. “A man broke into our hut at Kyangwali in the middle of the night. My father fought him and he shot my father in the back,” he explained.

In August of 2001, a six-year-old Nelson and his family boarded a crowded truck with several other families and headed to the US Embassy in Uganda to begin the asylum process that led them to Buffalo. That year, he entered kindergarten at PS 93 Southside Elementary. When he noticed other Black kids, he began speaking to them in Arabic and Swahili. He was puzzled and frustrated when they failed to respond. His difficulty adapting to his new environment and inability to communicate with his peers spurred rebellion.

At age seven, he and his family moved from the East Side to the West Side, where he lived in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. He attended Herman Badillo Community School and was the only African in his class.

“I was constantly bullied and physically and verbally assaulted by my [Puerto Rican] classmates,” he says. “The teachers tried to stop it, but they didn’t have any control over the students, so after a while I started fighting back.”

Despite a rocky beginning, two main experiences gave Nelson a sense of community growing up on the West Side. At 13 years old, he started working at various corner stores and he took up boxing at a local gym. If he wasn’t working, he was training and fighting. In those two worlds, he learned to see past ethnic and racial barriers.

“At the boxing gym, it was all Puerto Ricans and Africans,” he says. “We were all brothers. We supported each other’s goals and dreams to make it out of the ‘hood.”

Despite a better life and opportunities, in some ways for Nelson, life “in the hood” was similar to Uganda. I never asked Nelson if he lost any friends in Buffalo due to gun violence because I already knew what the answer would be. But, for the sake of accuracy in my reporting, I did, and of course the response was “yes.”

So in 2015, when boxing coach Ted Hampton took interest in him and supported his goal to make it out of the hood, it was a big deal for Nelson. Ted was genuinely invested in the success of dozens of kids and trained them free of charge. He motivated Nelson in a manner that no one ever had. With Ted by his side, Nelson was confident he was going to rise to the top.

Nelson Modi and Coach Ted Hampton at Hennepin Community Center PAL, Buffalo, NY Photo Credit: Tito Ruiz

Unfortunately, his boxing aspirations came to a screeching halt after Ted was involved in a car accident in 2017. Ted was ejected from his vehicle and died instantly.

“It’s been almost four years now and not a day goes by that I don’t think about Ted,” he said. “We had so much to accomplish. But I guess everything happens for a reason.”

Just before losing Ted, he lost another close friend. On Feb. 7, 2017, Nelson learned that Wardel “Meech'' Davis, 20, allegedly died while in Buffalo Police custody.

“Occasionally, Meech would be harassed by the police,” he said shortly after Davis’ death. “He would be coming out of the store [that I worked at] and they would just stop the car, stare at him, and tell him to leave the corner -- not knowing that he purchased several items from the store.”

Ultimately, the New York State Attorney General’s office deemed Meech’s death a “homicide due to ‘pre-existing medical conditions: bronchitis-asthma.’”

Nelson at a Marine training session, Lasalle Park, Buffalo NY. Photo Credit: Tito Ruiz

“When I saw that the Minneapolis Police claimed that George Floyd died due to preexisting medical conditions, it sounded all too familiar,” he says. “The community and I still want justice for Meech.”

After Meech’s murder, he was turned off by the idea of a career in criminal justice. With boxing also off the table -- and against Ted’s advice--in 2018 Nelson decided to join the U.S. Marines. Ted explained to Nelson that the U.S. Military was no place for a Black man and Nelson took heed. “But after Ted died, boxing wasn’t the same anymore,” says Nelson.

In hindsight, Nelson’s story reveals that his upbringing in a war-ridden military state coupled with his inner-city Buffalo environment shaped his outlook on life and the decisions he’s made. He learned that hard work, self-defense, resilience, and protecting the ones you love at all costs are keys to survival. Prior to arriving in America, Nelson lived without electricity and didn’t know what a TV was. His first year in Buffalo, he would come home from kindergarten and watch TV. He says he became mesmerized by a hyper heroic U.S. Marine recruitment commercial titled “The Climb.” “I would tell my mother that one day I was going to be a marine,” he says.

After watching “The Climb” on YouTube, I realized how an impressionable child with the trauma Nelson has suffered could become influenced and inspired after viewing the intense masterpiece. Nelson saw an image of his future self while watching a strong man rigorously climb a mountain in the midst of chaos and struggle to make it to the top where his reward awaited. Now, his childhood fantasy has manifested into his current reality. He is serving as a U.S. Marine, he’s married, and remains open to what his future holds.

The beauty of Nelson Modi’s story is that regardless of the trials and tribulations he’s faced, or the mistakes he’s made along the way, he keeps moving forward.

Community Filmmaker | Miranda Prise

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Miranda Prise

Community filmmaker Miranda Prise shares her grandfather’s story of making Buffalo home.

My Grandfather was always someone I looked up to. As I was growing up, he would tell me stories both fictional and real. He recalled old tales such as Hansel and Gretel and the girl who was stuck in the well, but his favorites to tell were true stories of his own life. He would mention the days he and his friends used to go out into the farm fields and help the farmers with their cattle or the time he played tricks on the American soldiers who were riding through town. Some of the descriptions he narrated left me astonished about the way people lived their lives during this very different time.

He would speak of air raids dropping bombs so close to his town that he and his family would be forced to spend the night in a small potato cellar to try to protect themselves as best they could from the blast. He would casually mention how those nights he thought to himself that if he died, he would at least be with his family. As a young boy this was his normal, but hearing him recall stories such as this one, as an 8-year-old who has never experienced anything like this, seemed entirely abnormal and wrong. He even recalled a story of when he was a boy and he found a bomb that had never detonated. He even carried it around town hiding it from adults because he wasn’t ready to be named a town hero until he turned it into the police. Little did he know, moving that bomb could have killed him and the whole town in just seconds.

His mother was always someone he spoke of when he mentioned Germany. When he would talk about her, he would speak with such admiration and conviction and I always thought of her as someone who was extremely courageous and fierce. I was lucky enough to meet her before her death, which coincidentally was on her 103rd birthday. To me, she was always just  Oma, but both she and my grandfather seemed to lead double lives that I knew nothing about. Their lives in Germany, I would never be able to completely understand. 

It was extremely important to my grandfather that he fit in as an American, but he never forgot his German roots. He would travel to Germany often to visit his family. I was fortunate enough to travel to Germany with my grandfather and my family and we were able to walk through his hometown, with him serving as our tour guide. He would reference his childhood stories and point out the exact spot they took place. I finally had a setting to envision the adventures he told, and I met some of the characters that I read about in his book. This was a defining moment for me because it solidified my need to learn more about my family history as there was so much I was unaware of. 

I don’t think my grandpa has ever regretted his decision to move to the United States. He has built an incredible life full of family and friends and finds new enjoyment in each day. I am truly proud that I get to call this incredible man my grandfather and I hope that I can live my life with his same philosophies. 

Community Filmmaker | Jamshid Vafai

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Jamshid Vafai

Community filmmaker Jamshid Vafai speaks with women’s rights activist, Nadia Shahram.

When I first heard about Buffalo Toronto Public Media’s project, Making Buffalo Home, I thought it was such a great concept and instantly began thinking about my own story. It began with moving here to attend the University at Buffalo on the first day of the Blizzard of ‘77. What a time in our history. 43 years later, one could say I have not been able to dig myself out. I made a wonderful life here in the process. That story will have to wait because I immediately realized that I know so many more interesting people who have immigrated and settled here.

I chose to tell the story of a very close friend of mine, Nadia Shahram. Like me, Nadia also emigrated from Iran and has made Buffalo and Western New York her home. Her story, her life, her accomplishments, and her contributions to the community are truly remarkable. Consider this a brief introduction to Nadia.

At age 15, Nadia left her close-knit family of six sisters, two loving parents, and grandparents in Iran to start a new life in Canada. Her journey continued in the city of Buffalo, where she began her formal studies, fell in love, got married, and started a family. Eventually, her entire family from Iran immigrated to the United States and settled in Buffalo. For a brief time, Nadia's extended family of sisters, children, husbands, and her parents enjoyed a blissful, loving, supportive, and warm life here in the queen city. This utopic setting changed as, one by one, her entire family moved to California. They resettled to the west coast for many different reasons - to pursue careers, better employment options, and a climate that was more comparable to their country of origin. What has kept Nadia here in Buffalo is a story in itself, but part of that story is that she sincerely loves and values the people and the community. The roots, relationships, connections, and the life that she had planted here were too deep and too important to leave behind.

Fast-forward a few years from her arrival, Nadia was living a wonderful and active life with her husband, a successful scientist working at the University. She was raising two daughters, Melanie and Natasha, and pursuing a degree in business and management. She passed on an offer from a large international company to work in fashion marketing. Instead, she decided to publish a cookbook and open a bistro in downtown Buffalo while she also enjoyed traveling all over the world with her husband and young daughters.

Even though she was living the fast-paced, productive, and affluent life that she wanted, Nadia felt that she needed something more. She decided to attend the University at Buffalo law school and pursue a career in the legal profession. She ultimately became a mediation attorney and worked in this profession for twenty years.

Shortly after 9/11, Nadia’s priorities began to change. Her focus shifted toward social justice and her legal interests brought her back to Iran to research family law and court proceedings, as they existed in an oppressive Islamic State. Nadia interviewed hundreds of women with the idea of writing an academic research paper. During these interviews, she became aware of the practice of “Sigeh” or “temporary marriage.” Based on these real-life stories, she ended up writing a novel entitled “Marriage on the Street Corners of Tehran.”

In 2013, as an adjunct professor at U.B. School of Law, she directed her students on the mission of writing a Declaration of Equality for Muslim Women, inspired by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This document was inducted into the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, and Nadia has since played an active role in the Seneca Falls community, the Women Rights Hall of Fame, and Convention Days Celebrations.

Back in Buffalo, Nadia’s interest in helping women brought her to the front lines of domestic violence, where she served on the board of the Family Justice Center. She founded a campaign called “Raising Hope” which, together with her colleagues, raised over $100,000 and increased community awareness on the topic of domestic violence.

Fighting injustice led her to a larger understanding of empowering young women. She created the "Coalition for the Advancement of Moslem Women,” a not-for-profit group of professionals working together to provide needed services for women. Today, the focus of the organization is education and the creation of scholarships for young Muslim women.

To this day Nadia continues helping young Muslim women and families in Western New York by providing pro bono legal services. One such example involved a new family who tragically lost their 4-year-old son after a fall down the staircase in their West Side apartment. Nadia represented the family as they dealt with child protective services. She provided a translator, brought food, attended services, and invited them to her home. All of this for a family she just met.

Nadia continues to celebrate the diversity of her community and the contributions of the immigrant and refugee families. She organizes community celebrations aimed at welcoming refugees and immigrants as our Buffalo neighbors. She also co-directs cultural and international festivals in collaboration with Buffalo Public Schools.

I felt a need to tell her story over mine because, as a friend, and as a partner in some of her endeavors, I feel like we need to celebrate the things Nadia, and others are doing in the community. I am proud to be part of this Buffalo – “The City of Good Neighbors.”

Community Filmmaker | Andy Gołębiowski

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Andy Gołębiowski

Community filmmaker Andy Gołębiowski shares post WWII Polish-American immigration stories.

To get to Buffalo from Poland these days, one can hop on a plane in Warsaw and arrive in Buffalo, all in one day.

For many of the Poles who came here in the 1950s, their journeys took years.

Chester Zwolak counts off the places he went through to get to Buffalo. "I went through Iraq, Syria, Palestine, North Africa, South Africa, South America, Canada, and Scotland..." "and England," his wife Wanda reminds him, and adds Iran and Palestine to her list.

Why all those countries? It was wartime, and their families had been forcibly deported from Poland to labor camps in the Soviet Union. While the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939 and subsequent murders of civilians is well-known, Chester and Wanda's story is largely untold.

I grew up in a community of Polish Catholic WWII survivors in Buffalo. My late father Andrzej was a soldier in the Polish Army when he was captured and imprisoned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. After arriving in Buffalo, he bonded with fellow war survivors. Among them were Chester and Wanda Zwolak, and Stanley Markut. My father didn't tell me many stories about his wartime experiences. But his friends do, so I sat down to record them to share with people outside of our small community.

Eighty years after her family was taken away, Wanda still speaks about that time with great emotion. She was just a girl when she heard pounding on the door in the middle of the night. "They came to arrest Mom and three children as 'enemies of Russia.’" The family was taken thousands of miles from home to Kazakhstan, where her mom was forced to work on a farm. Food was scarce, and a person could get shot for taking a piece of grain from under the snow.

Stanley Markut tells me what he was given. "One soup a day and 80 grams of bread." Even if he had the money, he wasn't allowed to buy more.

Chester credits common Russians for helping his family survive, and tells me, "God was with us because we couldn't survive by yourself. No way in hell. No way." Wanda tells about a local Kazakh who saved them from freezing to death during a storm. All the while, they were told by their oppressors that they would never leave what the survivors came to call the "white hell of Siberia."

These are the stories I grew up with at home. My mom told them. Now that we're older, my generation thinks it's important for our parents' stories to be told, to honor them, to prove that their suffering wasn't in vain, and to show to the world, the English-speaking world, the missing pieces that make up the puzzle called WWII. I want their neighbors in Buffalo to know why the old man next door plants raspberries every year.

World War II began when Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. Apart from the millions of dead[1], many others became displaced from their homes. Chester, Wanda, and Stanley were among the few who got out of the Soviet Union. They were released because the Soviets were suddenly attacked by their allies, the Germans. All hands were needed to fight the new enemy. The survivors were allowed to leave only under British command. That's how they ended up going through the Middle East, Africa, India, and so on before they made it to England and points beyond. The men were trained to fight on different fronts, and their families, as well as many orphans, were allowed to follow, cared for by a newly-formed Polish army.

After WWII, the U.S. was experiencing a new economic boom. New neighborhoods were being built for the returning American soldiers who were starting new families. Cars were needed to get them to and from their new homes, and steel was needed to make those cars. More people were needed to fill new factory jobs in places like Buffalo. So in the late 1940s and 50s, the U.S. government allowed WWII survivors to immigrate. That's how my father, Chester, Wanda, and Stanley and his wife ended up here.

As much as they loved and missed Poland, going back was not an option. By the end of the war, the areas where they came from became part of the Soviet Union, and the Communists had taken control of Poland, arresting and murdering people who wouldn't submit to their rule. By the time communism fell in Poland in 1990, it was too late. Our parents would have to start all over again. Here they had good jobs, built new homes, and felt comfortable in the "Little Poland" they had created for themselves in places like Buffalo. These "Little Polands" had Saturday language schools, religious services in Polish, cultural and veterans' organizations, radio programs, and charitable organizations that raised money for various needs in Poland.

We grew up speaking in the language of our parents. Rather than holding us back, it enriched our awareness of the world, gave us a connection to who we are, and also helped us understand other immigrants and their children around us. If it wasn't for knowing the language, I would not have been able to get to know my grandparents, not been able to work in capacities where the language was needed, and not fully understood what my parents and their generation went through.

Although children of immigrants were raised with an appreciation of things Polish, we've integrated ourselves fully into being productive members of American society and into Buffalo culture, whether we've stayed here, or moved in search of work in other cities.

Wanda and Chester enjoyed traveling to many parts of the U.S., as well as to Europe, but they always came back to their adopted home.

I asked Wanda what is it they like about Buffalo so much. "Everything!" she said.

[1] Among Polish citizens, it's estimated that 3 million Jewish citizens lost their lives, while some 2.5 million Christian Poles died during WWII.

Buffalo Toronto Public MediaA 100th Birthday Parade for Stanley Markut

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Polish-American Stanley Markut turned 100 years old. Because of social distancing, his family had to find a creative way to celebrate!

This is a bonus video produced after Andy Gołębiowski, a community filmmaker for Making Buffalo Home, produced a personal and thoughtful video featuring Stan and other Polish WWII survivors who shared the stories of their journey.

Community Filmmaker | Akram Shibly

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Akram Shibly

Community filmmaker Akram Shibly, 2nd generation Syrian, talks about making Buffalo home.

How many worlds have you traveled to? I have resided in thousands. I have been a superhero facing danger head-on. A little boy fleeing on a bike with an alien in my basket. I have been a king of lions, and a sentient robot with scissors for hands.

The power of storytelling. An art I always dreamed of mastering, living my life in pursuit of becoming the Syrian Spielberg.

The first step was to go to school. To learn to read, write, and think like an artist. As I eagerly awaited the arrival of the school bus under the watchful eye of my mother, I wished she would watch from inside. I could not stand to be seen by my classmates with her in her hijab. That would be too alienating. Too different.

If only I realized then that E.T. was special. His touch could heal, and so could embracing our differences.

There are a million clichés about the immigrant experience. How it’s like being stuck between worlds, and how vulnerable it leaves us – between schoolyard bullying and injustices directed at us from the highest order of society. This is not about that. This is about finding home.

My parents had a home. It was the same home as their grandparents, and their grandparents before us, and probably their grandparents before them. I took a DNA test and it is proven - 86% Middle Eastern. Meaning, my ancestors did not get around much.

Yet despite roots extending deeper than a thousand years, Buffalo called to my family and lifted our tree from its firm, Mediterranean soil.

I cannot imagine the shock my parents must have experienced when they immigrated here. My mother said she expected America to be as gorgeous as Hollywood represented it, only to find herself stuck in a pothole in the midst of a blizzard. Although my father was the first to come here as a visiting dentist to the University at Buffalo, it was my mother, Dr. Sawsan Tabbaa, who encouraged him to take that leap. As they walked the streets of Damascus, she saw a sign pointing to a prominent dental office saying, “Doctor So-and-so… certified Orthodontist from America.” His business was thriving.

A degree from the USA was enough to set Dr. So-and-So apart from all the other well-qualified orthodontists in Damascus. My mother proudly declared that she and my father were worthy of that coveted title. I think it was their intention to earn their certification in the USA, and then return to Syria where they could rake in patients with their special qualifications.

Yet here we are, twenty-seven years later. They stayed in Buffalo. They were not fleeing war at the time. Damascus was booming, and it was certainly sunnier, but something about Buffalo tied them down. The 716 may not be Sunset Boulevard, but it is certainly just as warm.

Granted, it was not all sunshine and rainbows. There have been times when my family wished they stayed home. Raising kids as Americans with Syrian values was the defining struggle of our upbringing. Navigating school, peer pressures, and trying to understand my own identity left me empty inside. Anxious. Depressed.

That is what attracted me to the camera. The lens is a mirror, which can reflect you to yourself; much like the pen can excavate gems from within your soul and lay it all on paper. As much as I loved entertaining, in truth I set out to tell stories in order to find myself. It’s tough growing up, no matter where you come from.

I experienced loads of ridicule, xenophobia, islamophobia and all the phobias that drive humans to attack one another. I was also lucky enough to be encouraged. Here, in a public school classroom, a teacher held my writing up for all the students to see and declared “this is the best writing I’ve read so far.”

I share that not to brag, but to demonstrate the kindness of Buffalonians, which motivated me to keep writing and keep pursuing my talents. It was in that very same classroom, Mr. Finucane’s English class, that I decided I would take storytelling a little more seriously. It only took one sentence to motivate me for a lifetime.

I dream of becoming the Syrian Spielberg.

At first, the stories I told reflected that dream. I wrote fantasies, comedies with pointless plots and cheap jokes. I wrote about characters learning to fly, dreaming of fame, building robots and partying hard until they pass out on the bathroom floor. I set out to spread hope through fiction. When tragedy struck the soil from which my parents grew, my dreams took a different turn.

As you see in the video, I did not choose where I was born. The talents I had the privilege of developing in Buffalo may have never come to fruition had I lived through the harrowing experiences of the Syrian Civil war. I felt that, given my privilege, I had no choice but to turn the camera away from my fantasies towards the realities my people were subjected to and began producing documentary films to elevate their voices (don’t say giving voice to the voiceless, everyone has a voice!).

This piece features excerpts from my upcoming short documentary film From a Distance, which explores in detail the impact of the Syrian civil war on refugees, immigrants and Americans alike. It will be available for free on and If you are interested in gaining a greater understanding of the plight of refugees and immigrants, please watch and share.

I hope that someday, everyone that we label a refugee, immigrant, legal or illegal, can find the peace and freedom to follow their dreams. My dreams may be on hold (for now), but that is one choice I am lucky enough to make.

Community Filmmaker | Beri Wais

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Beri Wais

Community filmmaker Beri Wais, a refugee from the war in Syria, now makes Buffalo home.

Back in 2010, life in Syria was stable and normal. It was a beautiful country, as it had been for many years. I loved going to school and visiting with my friends. The weather is great and the countryside is beautiful. We used to spend a lot of time on the farm in the summer with my extended family.

I was 18 in 2011 and dreamt of continuing my education. I always wanted to travel for leisure or to study. Instead, civil war broke out in my beautiful country, and there was no place left for life. It was all about taking people’s lives.

We had no choice but to flee the horrible situation or risk being targeted by militias. Many of my friends and family were not willing to leave, but I knew this was the only way to stay safe. We fled to our family farm in a very rural part of Syria for safety, but that didn’t last long. I witnessed airstrikes and bombing close to us. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the fighting and destruction entered our very remote area.

My two sisters and I, along with my aunt’s family, fled to the Kurdistan Region. We entered Kurdistan as asylum seekers and struggled. The bordering countries were economically unstable and filled with fighting. We lived there for almost four years with other members of my family. Finally, in late 2016, my sister and I were approved for resettlement in Buffalo, NY by the UNHCR. They asked if I had a specific city in mind where I might know people. I said ,”No. I don’t know about any cities.” All I knew about America was from the movies.

The United States and the city of Buffalo welcomed us with warmth, love and support. Journey’s End Refugee Services helped us adjust to life in the beginning and stand on our feet. We were so excited to experience this beautiful country and were anxious for the rest of our family to join us.

The executive order (travel ban) that came down in 2017, restricting travel by people from several countries, hit our family hard. Many of my other family members had gone through the entire screening process and were just waiting for a travel date. We were frustrated and worried. My father had a heart condition and we knew the stress of the situation was just making things worse. Several months later, after persistent help from the resettlement agency, our parents, our brothers, and one of our sisters were permitted to join us. The day we received word that they would travel to Buffalo in just one month, we were so happy. Our family had been through so much. It was like our faith and hope in humanity was restored.

About the same time they arrived in Buffalo, I started a new job as a care coordinator at BestSelf Behavioral Health. I work mostly with refugees and immigrants who don’t speak English and need our services. It’s hard to be in a new country where you don’t speak the language. My job is to guide and assist clients by linking them with physical, mental and social health providers.

In time I realized I have other career goals that led me to furthering my education at Erie Community College, studying communication and media arts. Someday I hope to earn a bachelor’s degree and become a filmmaker. Working on this project and telling my own story is a wonderful learning experience for me.

I still have two sisters in the Kurdistan Region and most of my relatives are in Syria. We refer to the region I come from as Rojava, but the Syrian government does not recognize that name. My extended relatives are targeted every day by militias and Turkey because they are Kurdish. They want to continue the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, and there are many people who are suffering and struggle to survive.

America is a great country and I feel so blessed to be here, be safe, and be free. Buffalo is my home now and I feel thankful to the people here for making me feel so welcomed.

Community Filmmaker | Tom Gadelrab Observes Kiahk

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Tom Gadelrab Observes Kiahk

Community filmmaker Tom Gadelrab shares customs of his Egyptian Coptic faith during Kiahk.

Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Holiday Traditions

Roast beef, hot chocolate, and bread pudding are synonymous with the Christmas season, but during Kiahk, I choose not to enjoy them, that is until the Coptic month of Kiahk is over.

Kiahk is the fourth month of the ancient Egyptian and Coptic calendars. It runs through the weeks preceding January 7, which is the day Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas. Of the roughly 40 Coptic families in Buffalo, many of us are originally from Egypt. During our holiday season, we fast during this month to focus on the spirituality of the season.

Thousands of Christians in Buffalo have their traditions during the holidays -- from decorating the tree to gathering around a favorite Christmas movie. These are prevalent in our homes as well, but the Coptic heritage is a deeper tradition in our families.

The choice to fast is a stapled tradition in our homes, just as much as ornaments on a tree. Fasting is not the only activity associated with the month of Kiahk. During this time, Copts strive to increase their spirituality as well. For example, we devote more time to attend church services, read the Bible, and help the poor. These practices allow us to reduce bodily cravings like food and increase our spiritual fulfillment during the month until the Holy Nativity.

On January 7, when we come together in the only Egyptian Coptic Church in Western New York (St. Mary & St. Moses), our heritage and religion come together as one. While our Coptic traditions may seem archaic and odd at first glance, I believe that in understanding these differences we can learn how similar we truly are. So, while families around Buffalo gather on the 25th for roast beef and bread pudding, remember I’m doing the same, but with some grilled salmon and vegan cookies.

- Tom Gadelrab

Community Filmmaker | Sara Ali

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Sara Ali

Sara Ali takes us through her family's journey from the Middle East to Buffalo.

Growing up as a second-generation immigrant from a Muslim family welcomed a slew of discrimination. Raised in Grand Island, NY, I experienced Islamophobia and hate primarily from my white peers. It was difficult being in my own skin, although now I embrace who I am and am proud of my roots. However, it was treacherous journey to get to that point.

Being compared to literal feces because of my darker complexion is only one of many examples of the bullying I endured. As you heard in the video, I was made fun of for having hairy arms in the 3rd grade, which wasn’t only an example of me being ethnically different, but Western beauty standards already influencing the way children perceive what it is or isn’t the norm or attractive.

It wasn’t until after 9/11 that I experienced Islamophobia. My classmate and neighbor called me a terrorist and accused me and my family of being responsible for the horrendous attacks that took place. This was just the beginning. I remember that same neighbor once saw my parents praying in our living room. We were actually “friends” and hung out sometimes. The next day in school, kids came up to me saying “I hear your parents bow down to the ground.” They would walk away, laughing hysterically. Another boy drew a stick figure of me on an airplane with a bearded man wearing what appeared to be a burqa, flying into a tower. He gave it to me and said, “that’s you and your uncle.”

My father has also experienced his fair share of discrimination, especially in the workplace; from being told to go back to his country, being faulted for the 9/11 attacks, and even being told he is “one of the good ones.” He was also jumped when he was a teen for being Arabian. Even today, he still takes on the burden of being “different.”

I could publish a massive novel of the insults I’ve heard and derogatory words I’ve been called. It’s part of the reason why embracing biculturalism was so difficult. My white peers aren’t the only ones with a fist in this battle. Even when traveling to Jordan to visit my family, I was a disappointment for not speaking the language, not wearing the hijab, and being “too American.” As a teen, I wanted to embrace my culture but also wanted to be accepted by my peers. I also wanted my family to accept me as an American-Arab but was always too Western. I felt like I let down everyone around me.

College brought on the fetishization of my existence. My male peers would tell me how they’ve never been with an Arab girl and always wanted to “experience it.” I didn’t want to be an experience, I just wanted to be accepted.

Now, as a 27-year old woman, I still deal with being fetishized and discriminated against. I’ve accepted this is going to be a constant, lifetime battle. As an adult, it’s easier to manage. Growing up on and getting out of Grand Island somewhat subdued those past battles. As least now, I surround myself with people of color and immigrants, so I have a sense of belonging. Being around those who can relate to being “different,” or to be frank, not being white in America, makes it easier to exist.

- Sara Ali

From Sara Ali's Collection of Poetry | "Brown in America"

Every job application tells me I don’t exist.
Check off “white.”
I check my own box and write “Middle Eastern.” This doesn’t count; choose one of the options.
I check off “other.”

“Other” for as long as I can remember. Middle school reminds me every day.
The law says “white”, my peers say “brown”.
A shade too dark, and eyebrows too thick.
Nose too pronounced and arms too hairy.

Too dark for the white kids, too light for the black kids.
The other Arabs weren’t my friends--they were too “other.”

Confusion ensued; I contemplated slicing my skin off.
Red felt more fashionable than brown-but-not brown. Maybe caramel or coffee with a splash of milk.
Trails of blood formed into footsteps.
Maybe my peers would prefer to see my insides.

I remember the first time I got called a terrorist.
Brandon shouted from the back of the bus “terrorist! It was your family! You did it!”
Choking on silence, I didn’t know what to say. 11 years old and I already didn’t fit it in for my physical features.
“Don’t defend yourself,” I thought. Islam just wasn’t in style.

I didn’t allow myself to shed a tear, not until I got home that day.
He was suspended from school and forced to apologize.
Anger in his eyes as he begrudgingly said, “I’m sorry.”

I’m 27 years old.
They tell me I shouldn’t be ashamed of my skin color,
I have light skin privilege.
I’m passable.

You don’t look Arab anyways. You look Italian. You’re kind of brown.
You can pass for white… Maybe Italian?
You’re ugly.
You’re beautiful.
You’re oppressed.
You’re privileged. Be thankful you look white.

Wait, legally, you are white.
Why are you complaining?

Community Filmmaker | Lisa Khoury

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Lisa Khoury

Community filmmaker, Lisa Khoury, shares her family’s love of their Lebanese culture.

Keeping our culture alive in Buffalo

I had never been more mortified.

I was in fourth grade, sitting at the lunch table at Eggert Road Elementary in Orchard Park when I pulled out what my mother had packed: a pita bread roll-up.

My friend, who was eating a Lunchable, looked over and grimaced.

It was 2001, just after 9/11, and I wasn’t just embarrassed by my lunch. I was embarrassed to be Middle Eastern.

My father and mother are Lebanese immigrants. In the 1970s, my dad’s parents, Michel and Loulou, fled the Lebanese civil war. They emigrated to Buffalo with their 11 kids so I wound up with 48 first cousins.

Our parents raised us all in a bubble -- speaking to us in Arabic; feeding us Lebanese food, and taking us to the local Lebanese church.

Every Sunday after church, we’d pack into Tayta Loulou’s small South Buffalo home. Grandma, who we called Tayta, would cook in massive quantities -- making Lebanese staples like kibbeh nieh (raw meat), lahem meshwi (beef kabobs), and, of course, her homemade flat bread.

Bread was Tayta’s specialty.

When she first came to Buffalo, she started baking flatbread in her basement for her 11 kids. The smell was so delicious and strong -- it drew in neighbors. Her neighbors turned into customers. Fast forward a few years, and Tayta started a business -- selling pita out of her side door.

What us little ones didn’t realize was our grandparents and parents were building something monumental for us: a foundation. Eating Lebanese food and speaking Arabic gave us a passion for our culture; raising us together gave us an indestructible bond, and witnessing Tayta’s hard work gave us an entrepreneurial spirit.

Now, my cousins are grown up. We have our own lives and families. And we have a choice: Do we continue living our Lebanese heritage and sharing it with Buffalo? Or do we assimilate into American life and move away?

Well, all those years our parents and grandparents raised us together paid off.

Despite feeling like outcasts in school, my cousins and I are *adamant* about keeping our Lebanese culture alive. And we’re just as adamant about sharing it with the City of Buffalo.

This is the story of how my cousins are continuing Tayta Loulou’s legacy -- by connecting with Buffalo through Lebanese food -- and, specifically, pita bread.

- Lisa Khoury

Community Filmmaker | Tom Gadelrab

Making Buffalo HomeCommunity Filmmaker | Tom Gadelrab

Tom Gadelrab from Lewiston, NY talks about how closely his faith and culture mix, and takes his own camera to document weekend traditions practiced in his Egyptian Christian Coptic faith including the making of Orban, the Eucharistic bread, and the Agape meal celebration that follows each Sunday liturgy in this video for Making Buffalo Home.

Learning about the Making Buffalo Home Project immediately flipped a switch in my mind. What better way to give people a taste of the Coptic faith than to visually show them a “day in the life.” An ancient faith with young origins in Buffalo, few people know just how rich our traditions are and how important they are to us. By showcasing visuals of these traditions, I hope to dispel misconceptions some may have towards an Egyptian-Christian church. At first glance many things about a young immigrant church may seem strange; the language, the food, maybe even the people. But I believe it’s by explaining these unknowns that we can fully appreciate the diversity that many cultures provide.

The Coptic faith prides itself on being a church with rich longstanding traditions, but beyond that it is a faith rooted in love. This sentiment is exemplary within our humble church here in Buffalo. Despite hundreds of congregants ranging over fourteen diverse nationalities, we are one big family with a unified heart. This spirit is ubiquitous regardless of whether our family lives down the street or halfway across the country. As our priest Father Mark puts it, “While the people may leave, St. Mary & St. Moses Church never leaves their hearts.”

Whether it be the Coptic church or any culture, I hope by sharing our differences and our stories, we can continue to make Buffalo home. A city with rich immigrant roots, we would be foolish to lose sight of this in the face of new, younger immigrant cultures - cultures that provide beauty and love if we take the moment to learn more about them.

- Tom Gadelrab

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Making Buffalo Home is a two-year, in-depth Buffalo Toronto Public Media 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.