Restless hearts: from Sierra Leone to Buffalo and back
blog by Genna Mitchell • January 25, 2013 @ 10:38am
For a group of Sierra Leonean refugees and their families scattered across the suburbs of Buffalo, a simple thank-you to the American resettlement program whose services they received over a decade ago wouldn’t suffice.
Today, the team that makes up the Sierra Leone Cultural Alliance of Western New York (SLCAWNY) can be found leaving footprints of gratitude all over the Buffalo community. They’ve also found creative ways to leave their mark on a number of villages back in Sierra Leone.
Sometimes, these changes begin simply out of gratitude. This defines the efforts of Allan Sesay, Joshua Mansaray, their families and the team at SLCAWNY. By chance they were chosen to leave the refugee camps in West Africa to be given an opportunity to live a more fulfilling life in America. They started their lives over in Buffalo, where they would meet and connect with one another after a long journey and decide that for them, it quite possibly had just begun.
Allan Sesay walked through the doors of the Southside Boys and Girls Club this summer to register his children for the after-school program I was running. We were short-staffed that day and I had to ask him to sit in the office for a moment while I prepared lunch for about 70 children.
An hour and a half later, I came back and Allan was still sitting in my office with a huge smile on his face. I apologized and he said, “It is no problem at all, Ms.” I immediately asked him where he was from, as I recognized his accent, and he replied, “Sierra Leone.”
Sierra Leone is a small country on the west coast of Africa that struggled through a deadly civil war that included, at times, rape, murder and atrocities against civilians. The war began with a rebel coup in 1991 and was not resolved until United Nations troops stepped in a decade later. The conflict crushed the Sierra Leonean economy and the victims of the violence can still be seen throughout the nation today.
I asked Allan who he had resettled with and he told me Journey’s End, a Christian-based resettlement agency in Buffalo. After having spent a decade in a nation ravaged by civil war, Allan and his family arrived in Buffalo on Sept. 7, 2001, just four days before the worst terrorist attack in US history.
Within days of the attacks, the Department of State—the premier refugee resettlement program in the world that had brought some 2.5 million refugees to the United States since 1975—was shut down. In 2004, the program was still running at only about two-thirds of its capacity prior to 9/11, according to the Department of States (DOS) Cumulative Review of Fiscal Years 1975-2004.
The DOS defines a refugee as “...someone who has fled from his or her home country and cannot return because he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” After decades of offering assistance to refugees coming from all over the world, Buffalo has its own definition for what a refugee is—the past is often considered less important than the needs of the present. The work of agencies such as the International Institute, Jericho Road Ministries and Journey’s End embrace the movement forward toward self-sufficiency.
I have been a volunteer in case management for a local agency, and the fact that Allan has been in Buffalo for over 10 years makes his case different than most of the clients I work with week to week. Once a recipient of resettlement services, he now gives back, with the assistance of members of SLCAWNY, Journey’s End and volunteers.
I had the privilege of assisting Allan, Joshua and the team back in November at a home on the west side. We prepared the residence for a Burmese family scheduled to call Buffalo home just 24 hours later. There, I met Andy Cammarata, the Development Assistant at Journey’s End Refugee Services. Andy was standing next to another man, who introduced himself as Jimmy Mackay, also a refugee from Sierra Leone. Andy told me that when she connected with Allan and the other members of SLCAWNY, they were ambitious about helping in any way they could. Allan said “We don’t care where the families are coming from, when we arrived we were welcomed with open arms, we want to do the same.”
SLCAWNY’s efforts in the Buffalo community began in 2003 when Allan and his friends saw a need to create a formal organization to consolidate their community, establishing cultural ties with their lineage and maintaining the culture of their homeland. Since January 2008, their mission has expanded to continue to improve the lives of resettled refugees in the WNY community as well as helping children in need in Sierra Leone.
In 2009, SLCAWNY established ties with the Evangelical Model Primary School (EMPS) in the village of Roknola in Sierra Leone. Joshua returned to Sierra Leone for the first time in seventeen years back in October. He went to the village where the school is and described the horrors of it “The children walk nearly six miles to the school everyday from surrounding villages. They come for the food.” There is no water. There are no toilets. The school is run by four voluntary staff members and supplies are limited. The children use stuffed socks or bundles of rags for a soccer ball.
EMPS attracts nearly 150 pupils each day, a number which has increased by nearly 50% since the establishment of the feeding program in 2009 made possible by out of pocket funds from members of SLCAWNY. Many of the children of EMPS are orphans of the civil war which plagued Sierra Leone. According to Joshua, the future of SLCAWNY will continue to focus on “…the children. It will always be about the children.” Tackling the hunger crisis is their main focus but their resources are limited.
It has been over two hundred years since the United States first opened its ports to welcome those escaping persecution and fleeing war. Buffalo continues to open its arms to refugees- while in return accepting ways to expand its rich cultural presence.