Published November 28, 2016
Before visiting for the first time on Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations didn’t know that Buffalo is known as the “City of Good Neighbors.” But after meeting with members of the city’s thriving refugee population and seeing how they’ve been supported, Samantha Power witnessed the kindness and compassion that have helped Buffalo live up to its moniker.
The more than 14,000 refugees who have resettled in Buffalo over the past 15 years have helped reverse the city’s decades-long population decline, while bolstering its economy and making the community more diverse.
“What is more American than that? Our country has a lot to learn from this ‘City of Good Neighbors,’” Power said during an afternoon talk in Baird Recital Hall on UB’s North Campus.
The U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Power has been a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet since August 2013 when the Senate confirmed her as the nation’s 28th ambassador to the U.N. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former professor at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Power began looking to visit a city with a vibrant refugee community in June, when Obama announced plans to hold a U.N. summit on the refugee crisis.
Buffalo, she said, is the perfect place to examine the positive impact refugees can have on a city. Before concluding her day with a talk and Q&A at UB, Power met with city leaders, refugee resettlement agencies and refugee families, and visited the West Side Bazaar, a bustling small business incubator whose vendors are mostly refugees and immigrants.
Power also pointed out the role UB plays as a diverse university that has a large enrollment of international students, a point President Satish K. Tripathi noted in his opening remarks. “As a world premier public research university, UB is a truly international institution in both stature and global impact,” he said.
Tripathi mentioned several examples of ways in which UB faculty, staff and students are working with refugee communities locally and abroad, from UB’s Community for Global Health Equity, to the School of Social Work’s Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute, to the Office of Global Health Initiatives in the School of Public Health and Health Professions.
“It is fitting that today’s discussion is taking place at the University at Buffalo, a university that ranks among the top 20 U.S. educational institutions enrolling the largest number of international students,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said.
The timing of Power’s visit was particularly poignant, given the anti-immigrant comments President-elect Donald Trump has made during his campaign and since being elected earlier this month.
In addition, the world is experiencing a refugee crisis unparalleled since the aftermath of World War II, Power said, adding that over the course of her one day in Buffalo, some 34,000 people — or roughly the number of students and employees at UB — will be displaced.
New York State is the fourth-largest recipient of refugees, and 1 out of every 3 is resettled in Buffalo, Power said.
She noted that what’s happening in places like Buffalo can help dispel the myths associated with refugees — namely, that they take jobs away from American workers, live off government assistance and pose a threat to U.S. security.
Refugees face myriad challenges upon arriving to a new city, such as a lack of support networks and language barriers, that further complicate the transition.
“It is no surprise that at first refugees may lean on others for help,” Power said.
“But what I saw today in Buffalo also echoes what we have seen across America for decades: Given a helping hand and some time to gain their footing, the overwhelming majority of refugees more than pay back the modest support that they receive.”
Power spoke for about 20 minutes, then took part in a 45-minute question-and-answer session moderated by Nancy Smyth, dean of the School of Social Work, and Minahil Khan, a 2016 UB alumna who emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan with her family when she was in grade school.
Several audience members asked Power what they can do to change the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that persists in many rural parts of the country.
The human element, Power said, is the best way to break through because many refugees have powerful, moving stories of the strife they faced in their native countries.
In short, she said, “Nobody chooses to be a refugee.”