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Won’t you be my neighbor? Immigrants and refugees tell their stories through art

Buffalo immigrants and refugees gathered in front of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library this weekend to share their stories of arrivals and departures at an event titled “Points of Departure”. It’s part of a collaboration between Just Buffalo Literary Center and Journey’s End Refugee Services.

In a turbulent political climate surrounding refugees and immigrants, what is the best way to hear their stories?

“It’s really important for refugees to tell their own story and not have them told for them,” said Journey’s End Immigrant Community Navigator Michelle Holler.

“Points of Departure” started as a way to bring refugee immigrant and new American communities together over story sharing.

“We invited the community to do anything from short story, poetry, song, chanting, basically as a way to share their stories of migration,” she said. “The theme was kind of everyone has a story of migration.”

Saturday was their third event, one they hope of many more to come. It was bigger due to their collaboration with Just Buffalo Literary Center’s “Words on the Street” initiative, which aims to engage the community with outdoor public readings, workshops, and events like this.

And it came together because of local immigrant Bishnu Prasad Adhikari.

Adhikari was forced to leave Bhutan in the early 90’s and lived in refugee camps for an extended period of time.

“It was so hard,” Adhikari said. “We were living in a hut that was made of bamboo. We had to sleep on the floor… a muddy floor. Only a sac was there and only one blanket was there. So imagine yourself, how difficult it (was), we were facing at the time.”

He resettled in America in 2009. One year later, he started working at Journey’s End, providing training and teaching English to other immigrants and refugees.

“My English, it was not working well. Many people, like the people from Journey’s End, they helped me to start my life. They supported me… how to work here and trained me to speak,” he said. “This is what they taught me. Now I am a citizen here.”

Credit Bishnu Prasad Adhikari / WNED

“My plan is, I want to help the new people. We speak my language (Nepali) and a little bit of English. Whatever the countries they came from. I want to help them become citizens,” Adhikari said.

Holler approached Just Buffalo after Adhikari held an event at Journeys End where he invited his community to come share stories and read poems.

“I was like wow, there’s so many people that want to share their story and beyond that, I’ve had several people tell me this is a great way for them to be able to meet other people in the community and not be isolated. And a great way for them to practice their English,” said Holler.

And for Adhikari, it’s a chance to share his life-long journey to Buffalo.

“Do you guys have any second part in your life? I do have one. This poem was written when I became a citizen,” he said to a crowd in front of the downtown library Saturday. “I am one in this American wall and I was so proud when I wrote this. I was telling something to the air in the sky, wind in the sky.”

Bishnu Prasad Adhikari shares a poem he wrote after becoming a citizen

Adhikari said it’s not uncommon to think of his home in Bhutan.

“Sometimes the images will come to us. It is very very beautiful. But, because of the language, religion, and different politics, they kicked us out. When I was 21. With hopes and goals for my life. But I couldn’t achieve those goals,” he said.

As Adhikari read his poem, he stood in front of three doors— which were inspired by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s book “Exit West” according to Just Buffalo Literary Center Artistic Director Barbara Cole.

Credit Christopher Thomas / WNED

“We were really inspired by the metaphor in that book of doors opening and people sort of moving from one place to another by coming through the doors and telling the story of migrants,” said Cole.

Hamid is coming to Buffalo, October 3 to start this year’s BABEL series.

Cole said the series initially started after 9/11, focusing on countering islamophobia, but over the last few years they’ve had more American authors due to the political strife domestically. Last year was the BABEL series' biggest season to date.

“We’re really proud of the fact that Buffalo is a little more open-minded and more welcoming,” said Cole. “We hope that the BABEL series helps to shine a spotlight on Western New York’s policy of being more open to refugees. And also helps people to realize how important it is to be welcoming migrants and immigrants and what it means to really support them in their lives here in the community.”

Holler said she’d like to hold events like these once a month moving forward.  

“I actually had a gentleman afterwards be like, ‘I’m from Italy. I’m not going to share a story today but hopefully I can at the next one.’ To see that the older immigrants and the new refugees and immigrants and the American born individuals can come together over something like this, I think that yes, this is like a micro-scale of what we can do, but this can be put in to a larger act for sure,” she said.

Holler, who helped run the West Side Bazaar on Grant Street for four years, read a poem about her great-grandmother’s Sunday sauce. She has seen food bring people together. She thinks the arts will too.

Holler, who helped run the West Side Bazaar on Grant Street for four years, reads a poem about her great-grandmother’s Sunday sauce.

“I think it’s really important more than ever for us as a community to come together and show that we’re going to stand together,” she said. “In order to do that, we do have to use the arts. We do have to organize and we do have to share our stories and be able to relate to others. I think that’s the most important thing on a human basis.”

Adhikari was just one of several who shared their story this weekend downtown, in the heart of the City of Good Neighbors.

He said he plans to continue helping refugees work their way towards citizenship, listening to one story at a time.  

“My heart believes now, I can live generation to generation,” Adhikari said. “That was taken away from me for the case of this life. And the heartbeat to rise up with human strength, wiping the hazardous title of refugee forever.”

Credit Christopher Thomas / WNED