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Forum focuses on refugee challenges, misconceptions

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Addressing the myths about refugees. That was the focus of a panel discussion held Tuesday at Daemen College, where an audience of nearly 200 people heard about the challenges facing immigrants, including just how hard it is to achieve asylum status in the U.S.

Learning English remains a top challenge for refugees fleeing their homeland and looking to settle here. Advocates encourage incoming refugees and immigrants to learn the language as soon as possible but they add that often times, those arriving from foreign lands put that education off to address other priorities.

"When they first arrive, they're not thinking long-term. They're thinking 'now I'm here, how do I pay my rent? How do I pay this?'", said Apple Domingo, New American Director for Jewish Family Services. "Sometimes 'English as a second language' courses are at the bottom of their to-do list. We do encourage them, as we send them to agencies, to seek out 'English as a second language' classes."

Domingo noted that some programs offer the language class for free.

In the weeks following the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis, many held the belief that what would result is a mass flooding of refugees into the U.S. Achieving asylum status is more difficult than many believe, suggested Sophie Feal, Supervising Immigration Attorney with the Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyer's Project. 

She told the audience that, for example, fleeing a war by itself does not automatically qualify someone for asylum status. It is still the burden of refugees to prove that returning to their homeland would result in persecution or death at the hands of a government or other oppressive body, such as a criminal gang.

"Here in the Buffalo area, our judges grant only about 10 percent of the asylum cases that come before them," said Feal, who encouraged members of the audience to research a website hosted by Syracuse University known as TRAC, which documents federal court cases.

Those who do settle in the Buffalo area have the advantage of already-established immigrant communities from which they can meet peers who can help them sort through the cultural barriers of their new home.

Refugees have gained a good reputation, meanwhile, by local employers. Sharlene Buszka, a professor of business administration at Daemen, did not sit on the panel but told WBFO of her own work surveying employers about their attitudes toward refugees.

"There are a lot of misconceptions that I think the general public has about refugees taking jobs away from people in Buffalo," she said. "What many employers are saying is that refugees are willing to take jobs that other people don't want. And, they're also willing to often work longer and harder than many who are native Buffalonians."

That work ethic appears to be rubbing off on refugee students, too. So suggested panelist Linda Scinta, a social worker with the Buffalo Public School District.

"It's just that will and that determination and work ethic that gets them to where they need to be," Scinta said. "In every culture and every society there's students, parents or other people who have more difficulty coping or adjusting. But by and far,  our students and families are resilient and they're successful."


Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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