Her passion for service led her to become a champion of international refugees.
Karen Andolina Scott always knew she had a passion for service. With dual degrees from UB in law and social work, she has created a dynamic career around social advocacy with a focus on helping international refugees build new lives in America.
Born in Buffalo and raised in nearby West Seneca, Andolina Scott studied business at SUNY Geneseo, but graduated without a firm career path.
“Business gave me lots of options—probably too many,” she says. “I never really dreamed of being an attorney or a social worker. I just knew I wanted to help people.”
Her late father, a probation officer, wanted to attend law school but never got the chance. He passed away during her senior year of high school. Along with her mother’s encouragement, his memory inspired Andolina Scott to study law enforcement from the service side.
After Geneseo, Andolina Scott and her husband, Peter C. Scott, spent several years living and working in Washington, D.C., and then San Francisco. While in California, she began taking psychology courses to feed her growing interest in systems advocacy, a field concerned with the broad view of social, political and economic forces affecting access and equality.
With their roots in Western New York, the couple eventually moved home so Andolina Scott could enter UB’s dual degree program in social work and law, an accelerated four-year graduate curriculum where coursework and real-world internships in both fields often overlap or are pursued simultaneously.
Within the School of Social Work, Andolina Scott had a choice between micro and macro tracks. “I could learn how to work with and directly serve individuals, or I could study systems-wide barriers to prosperity, such as global immigration, racism and access to the courts and language resources,” she explains.
She chose the latter. “I knew early on when taking those classes in my first year that being a clinician was not for me.”
In the law school, a graduate course called Intergroup Justice and the Law with professor and legal scholar Athena D. Mutua, exposed her to eye-opening discussions about racial reparations, while an economic development course featured a bus trip around Buffalo that showed Andolina Scott firsthand how redlining, gentrification and architecture affect people’s access to housing.
Of her time at UB, she says, “Most importantly, I learned this idea that you don’t have to be a traditional social worker, or be what people typically think of as an attorney; there are all these options out there. And you can tailor your career to stay true to both law and social work.”
Andolina Scott’s first experience in advocacy was during graduate school, when she processed immigration papers for a local law office and took a social work placement with an Erie County Family Court judge. After graduating, she gave birth to two boys, 18 months apart. During that time, she discovered Journey’s End Refugee Services, a Christian refugee resettlement organization based in Buffalo with satellite offices throughout the region.
Over the past 20 years, Erie County has welcomed more than a quarter of the refugees who came to New York State; to date, more than 16,000 refugees have settled in Buffalo since 2002. Journey’s End, Catholic Charities of Buffalo, Jewish Family Services of WNY and the International Institute are the four Buffalo-area agencies authorized by the federal government to resettle refugees, of whom a certain number are allowed into the United States each year from a changing list of countries. Along with Jericho Road Community Health Center, they form the Western New York Refugee and Asylee Consortium, a network of agencies helping immigrants settle in the region.
Staffed by 70 attorneys, translators and educators—many of whom are former refugee clients— Journey’s End has resettled nearly 250 individuals to date this year. The agency provides low-cost immigration legal services, including naturalization, applications for permanent residency, processing travel documents and family reunification assistance.
Journey’s End also provides a high school equivalency program, job training and placement resources, and English language tutoring, as well as translation services and cultural education for refugees and local companies looking to hire them.
The agency’s capacity and budget are dependent on fluctuating immigration quotas, but it also mirrors Buffalo’s 20-year boom in refugees from war-torn, economically depressed nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Andolina Scott says there are now Afghans, Colombians and Eritreans joining an existing immigrant community that has doubled since 2000.
After volunteering in 2013 at Journey’s End’s free walk-in legal clinic, Andolina Scott, then a new mother, joined the agency a few months later as an attorney and went on to direct its legal department.
During an internal search for executive director in 2014, she realized she was ready to lead the organization, despite parenting two young children. “I thought, who’s going do it better? I have this degree in business. I have training in social work and law, and I always felt very passionately about the organization,” she says.
She was named executive director in 2015, and over the next seven years grew the legal department from three attorneys to 15, increasing the agency’s annual budget to a current $6.5 million. A title change, to CEO, came in 2022.
“I hope I exhibit a servant or service leadership,” she says modestly. “It’s why I do this work. For a lot of people working at Journey’s End, there’s a real passion to help people. We believe it really is a benefit to Western New York.”
"I hope I exhibit a servant or service leadership," she says modestly. "It's why I do this work. For a lot of people working at Journey's End, there's a real passion to help people. We believe it really is a benefit to Western New York." - Karen Andolina Scott
Under her guidance, Journey’s End has developed several unique programs, including mentoring for young-adult refugees and asylees, and agricultural training through Brewster Street Farm, an immigrant-run urban farm growing a cornucopia of globally diverse produce behind the agency’s headquarters, which is located in an artists’ workspace and former warehouse on Main Street.
“We have individuals who work within Buffalo Public Schools, assisting newcomer families, and then various community outreach efforts, too,” Andolina Scott adds, noting that wraparound services such as medical and mental health care are provided by several other area agencies, including Jericho Road.
Indeed, the members of the Western New York Refugee & Asylee Consortium share a long history of voluntarily collaborating to create a welcoming community. Through their efforts, the city has slowly come to recognize the important role refugees play in a stronger, more diverse urban economy.
“It’s something unique and special about Western New York, that we have so many agencies working together,” she says. “We really rely on those relationships.”
As one of Journey’s End’s partners recently told USA Today, however, resettlement work isn’t all “puppies and lollipops.” It’s constant paperwork, networking with community partners, and hours of often difficult, face-to-face outreach with refugees and their family members, local businesses, cultural officials and politicians to make the system function, Andolina Scott says.
In addition, refugees dealing with often horrific trauma from persecution and abuse can face more discrimination in their new homes, including lack of access to jobs, affordable housing and financial assistance. Andolina Scott’s team tackles this daily through cultural competency programming, a kind of consultancy model designed to help refugees and local businesses air questions, resolve issues and better understand each other.
Under the previous federal administration, Andolina Scott adds, “the refugee resettlement program was decimated, and there weren’t that many people coming in through the program.” The current administration has been more open to refugee resettlement, but the process remains complex. “We’re getting some Ukrainians, but they were slotted to come here before the Russian invasion, and their cases have slowed for one reason or another.”
To help raise money for its work and educate the public about refugees, Journey’s End launched the annual WNY Refugee Film Festival in 2019 as an alternative to the usual nonprofit gala. In 2022, seven films produced by or about refugees living in the U.S. are being screened either virtually or at the agency’s Buffalo office, including films about a Cambodian entrepreneur selling doughnuts and a marathoner from South Sudan.
Andolina Scott’s favorite film of the season, “Utica: The Last Refuge,” recounts the resettlement journey of a Sudanese family to a small, upstate New York city grappling with the growing pains of its rapidly growing refugee population.
“The festival is much more tied to the mission of the organization,” she says, “because that education piece is part of the arts. We have a theater in our suite here in the Tri-Main building, surrounded by artists, so this just feels more ‘us.’”
Andolina Scott is happy to talk about her agency’s services, but she is even more proud of the diverse staff who make it run.
“I certainly never imagined when I moved to Buffalo that I would be working at a place that is so international,” she laughs, adding that she only speaks English in an office where 28 languages are spoken.
Her team hails from places like Liberia, Jordan, Rwanda, Canada, the Czech Republic and Bhutan. Employees share the foods, music and social customs of their cultures at the bustling office.
She recalls the “beautiful sisterhood,” laughter and dancing at a recent baby shower for an Afghan staff member. All the women had their hair and makeup done and celebrated with intention.
Such happiness thrives among refugees despite the ongoing cultural and political oppression back home. “There are a lot of human rights issues happening,” Andolina Scott says. “But life isn’t black and white; even when there are real and true challenges, there is also potentially happiness there as well.”
Whether it’s the office-wide cooking competitions or other celebrations, Andolina Scott has found her happy place. “Those are the moments that I think are what separates us from other agencies, and what brings me the most joy.”
Through her work in social advocacy, Andolina Scott firmly believes that American exceptionalism shouldn’t be the answer to our country’s problems. It takes being open to hearing people’s stories and experiences to realize the common ground we all share. “We have a lot to learn from each other,” she says. “And the staff of Journey’s End have taught me that.”
Story by Lauren Newkirk Maynard
Photographs by Douglas Levere
Published August 30, 2022