Think of it as a cry from the past, meant to be heard here and now. Mohamed A. Mohamed came here from war-torn Somalia. He spent nearly two decades in Buffalo. He got a master’s degree from UB. He worked for the state. He knows our city, and he knows the hopes and dreams of the refugees who are resettling here in droves. In a bizarre twist of fate, Mohamed returned to Somalia last year to become its prime minister.
He is one of countless immigrants who came, put down roots and bettered himself—to the benefit of Buffalo. The Somalis, Iraqis, Burmese, Pakistanis, Nepalese and others who come by the hundreds each year are the silver lining for a city that is emptying out faster than you can say “Gone to Carolina.” Doing everything in our power to bring refugees in, and to keep them from leaving for greener (or warmer) pastures, should to my mind be on top of Byron Brown’s “To Do” list.
That is what Mohamed thought, as well.
He told the Buffalo News in a 2007 interview that the city should turn immigrants into homeowners: Show them how to establish credit, then help them—or lead them to community agencies—to get mortgages for houses in battered neighborhoods that might otherwise fall to the wrecking ball.
“If you [keep] those people, they become taxpayers,” said Mohamed. “There’s no system in . . . the city that will say, ‘How do we promote new immigrants to come to the city?’ There’s no planning or, if there is, immigrants are not part of it.”
Spoken like a future leader of his country.
The city has a glut of cheap, salvageable houses in hurting neighborhoods that, to many refugees, look like the American Dream. Tattered neighborhoods from the East Side to the West Side are teeming with folks walking the streets dressed in a chador, the flowing Muslim dress, or a lungi, the loose-fitting Burmese pant/skirt. The revival of Buffalo, to my mind, involves seeing a lot more of them. Immigrants are the seeds of the city’s regeneration.
There are growing Somali and Burmese communities on the West Side. An expanding Muslim enclave is reclaiming one of the East Side’s worst neighborhoods— starting schools, fixing houses, bringing back to barren streets the work ethic and values that built Buffalo. Some of the immigrants resettled here from New York City, which was too expensive.
“The apartment that [costs] $1,500 a month in New York,” said Abdul, a recent transplant, “here is $400 for the same thing.”
The problem is keeping recent arrivals here, given the tough weather and sketchy job market. Some Muslim husbands, I am told, work weekdays driving a cab in New York, and return to their families each weekend with a full wallet. Buying a house deepens their stake in Buffalo.
Molly Short runs Journey’s End, one of four local resettlement agencies. It last year funneled nearly 400 immigrants into the city.
“Homeownership is inexpensive here,” said Short. “It’s not uncommon for our refugees to [eventually] buy a home. Some buy a double, and get the rental income . . . They want to accomplish that American Dream.”
Short would like to work with the city, matching immigrant home-owning wannabes with available houses. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you if the mayor is interested in matching immigrants to its glut of vacant or battered housing. A City Hall spokesman did not return repeated calls for comment.
“Resettlement agencies and the city should work side-by-side,” said Short. “It’s a natural partnership.”
Mohamed A. Mohamed thought so. And look where he ended up.