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Refugee families are making Buffalo home and are thriving

2 On Your Side spent time with two families in Western New York and talked with them about their journeys that led them here.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — As the United States gets ready to welcome tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, 2 On Your Side wanted to talk with some of the families that have already moved to Western New York as refugees to find out more about their journeys and how they're doing now.

Elizabeth Poemu and Kotelo Mpiana resettled in Western New York with their families from refugee camps. Poemu lives in Kenmore and moved here in 2009 with her parents, two younger brothers, and grandma.

"I was born and raised in a Thai refugee camp. My parents are originally from Burma, and they met in Thailand, they got married there, and I was born there and raised there," Elizabeth Poemu said.

Peomu's family didn't know where they would end up just like Mpiana's family.

"We wanted to be independent, and trying to work hard, and trying to make our family successful here in America," Kotelo Mpiana said.

Mpiana's family moved to Buffalo in June of 2019, about 10 years after moving to South Africa. They were refugees from Congo, and South Africa ended up not being a good fit.

"If we compare with our life in South Africa, and Congo, in South Africa, to get seven children to stay together, to find a job, it was very complicated to find a job in South Africa because there was some kind of discrimination," said Bukasa Andy Mpiana, Kotelo's dad.

The family was matched with the International Institute of Buffalo, which helped them find jobs and get the kids in school.

"When we got here to America, we were nicely welcomed," said Ngebja Judith Mpiana, Kotelo's mom.

Poemu's family was resettled by Catholic Charities.

Both women were so inspired by the work those agencies did to help their families that they decided to pursue careers in the resettlement agency field.

"I studied social work, and I ended up interning at Jewish Family Services, which is another resettlement agency, and I loved it, you know. So after I graduated, I got the opportunity to get a job at Journey's End. A position for case manager which was resettling refugees, meet them at the airport, take them home, buy them their arrival meals," Poemu said.

"How does that make you feel to know that you have that kind of impact on somebody's life?" 2 On Your Side's Kelly Dudzik asked.

"Oh, it makes you feel so amazing, and knowing that even if we are not from the same country, they will see someone that, like former refugees, you know? It's like a familiar face, you know? So it makes me feel that they're not going to feel alone or strange," Poemu said.

Mpiana started working at the International Institute almost a year ago.

"That was like a dream come true to me ... so just to be able to help other people, seeing the people going through what you went through, and, you know, exactly what they need and fulfilling those needs, it really feels good. It's a very fulfilling job," Mpiana said.

"What advice do you give people who are just getting here?" Dudzik asked.

"Honestly, I tell them to take it slow. And also, I tell them to follow the guidance that International Institute is providing, because I think that's the way that can lead them to success because, you know, when you come here you're new, you're so confused, you don't know what to do, people can come and tell you things, so if you're trying to follow everybody, you're not going to have a right direction," Mpiana said.

Added Poemu: "It will be difficult, but it takes time and you will get there. Like look at me. I came here. I didn't know any English. No English at all, and here I am working as a case manager giving back to the community helping refugees."

Both women are thriving. Mpiana is thankful her family got to stay together.

"We have plans for the future ,and I believe when you do it together, then you can achieve your plan as a family," Mpiana said.

And Poemu met her fiancé in Buffalo. He's a former refugee from Thailand, but they were in different camps. Coming to Buffalo brought them together.

"If it was not for resettlement process, we wouldn't be here and have these kids," Poemu said.

Both the International Institute and Journey's End are always looking for new volunteers.


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