Published September 28, 2021
The 2020 U.S. census revealed that the city of Buffalo gained population for the first time in 70 years, a trend fueled by an influx of immigrants and refugees.
The positive impact made by these groups, says Wooksoo Kim, associate professor of social work and director of the Immigrant and Refugee Research Institute at UB, goes against the misaligned and politicized views of the immigrant and refugee communities.
“For the last 10 to 15 years, we have witnessed tremendous growth in immigrant and refugee populations in Buffalo,” says Kim, whose research aims to improve the lives of immigrant and refugee populations by understanding their needs and designing culturally responsive intervention approaches to address those needs.
“We have heard the stories of Bangladeshi immigrants moving into the East Side and refugees from Burma into the Lower West Side, Black Rock and waterfront neighborhoods,” Kim says. “When we walk down Grant Street or Broadway, we see more and more business signs in various languages popping up every year, which suggests a growing demand and interest in serving immigrants and refugees in the area.”
Kim says she was initially worried that immigrants and refugees would not be accurately counted in the census.
“Typically, immigrants and refugees are underrepresented in the census. Adding the pandemic to the mix, I was concerned that the 2020 census would further undercount their numbers,” she says. “However, I am personally delighted to see the growth reflected in this year’s census. I believe this is the result of the hard work and dedication of various community organizations to make sure the population was accurately counted.”
Affordable cost of living and support networks are expected to fuel Buffalo’s immigrant and population growth for the next decade, she says.
“Historically, affordability and strong support to welcome new Americans have been the major attraction for immigrant and refugee populations to settle in Buffalo,” she explains. “Buffalo and Western New York will always be competitive in offering affordable housing and a lower cost of living compared to other cities in the U.S. We also have a growing, well-structured support network for immigrants and refugees. Thanks to local resettlement agencies and their newcomer support programs, ethnic community organizations and government agencies all work together to make Buffalo and Western New York an ideal place for successful integration.”
Buffalo immigrant and refugee populations are also making significant contributions to the city’s life, culture and economy, Kim notes.
“Immigrants and refugees have always been main contributors to economic development — they accomplish this by opening up small businesses, buying houses and contributing to the wonderful diversity of the region,” she says.
“Without setting foot outside of Buffalo, there are so many opportunities to learn and experience the world’s cultures and languages located right here in our backyard. There are many cultural events held year-round. To name a few: the Burmese Water Festival, Karen Wrist-tying Ceremony, Puja for Hinduism and Eid Mubarak for Muslims. These events and the people who attend them help to bring different cultural and international experiences to Buffalo without the need for travel. I believe they are the ones responsible for bringing in much of the character and livelihood of the region.”
There are plenty of ways the Buffalo community can support immigrants and refugees Kim says.
“We must continue to invest in fine-tuning a web of support systems for the newcomers to this region in order to better facilitate successful integration,” she says. “We also must move away from thinking that we are the ‘givers/donors’ and they are the ‘receivers/beneficiaries’ who are dependent upon our generosity. It is important to recognize that Buffalo’s longtime residents have benefited, and will continue to benefit, from immigrants and refugees. The more we help them, the more we help ourselves.”
Eliminating the unnecessary politicizing of immigrant and refugee issues in the U.S., she says, would be a large factor in making life better for these populations. The country needs to remember how the nation was built, she says.
“I encourage all of us to step back and remind ourselves that this country was built by immigrants and refugees,” said Kim. “Our ancestors were immigrants and refugees who needed help and support, and they are the ones — along with our indigenous populations — who built and defined this nation. To partially borrow the famous words of Emma Lazarus, by welcoming newcomers, we are honoring and continuing our country’s legacy to help all of the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”