More than 20 of the buildings surrounding 50 Wyoming Avenue on the East Side of Buffalo are completely abandoned. However, the lives that have filled that address—more than 5,600 in the last six months alone—compensates for the adjacent emptiness.
Vive La Casa, the largest shelter for international refugees on the US-Canadian border, has housed, fed, and provided legal and medical support for nearly 20 years. However the terrorist attacks of September 11 mean new challenges for both refugees and the people trying to help them.
Because of Buffalo’s close proximity to Canada, it has always been a popular refugee destination. Two Catholic nuns, Sr. Bonnie and Sr. Betty, took it upon themselves to start a shelter in Lackawanna for refugees passing through Buffalo. The first location was “literally a fallen down convent,” according to Owens. While the building has since been demolished, Owens says that, “People talk with great fondness about how horrible it was.”
In 1991, a former school on Wyoming Avenue was purchased and remodeled to house refugees. The 20-year mortgage came from a state agency and doesn’t have to be repaid as long as the house functions as a shelter. Today, Vive La Casa is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to take care of all refugees who walk through the doors.
Fourteen staff members run the building, including four security guards, one attorney, and four night security guards. The staff members speak eight languages, including Spanish, French, Russian, Somali, Swahili, and a little Arabic, while long-term residents help fill in the remaining language gaps.
Even though Vive is the largest refugee shelter on the US-Canadian border, with room for 118 residents, the past few months have been difficult because the house has been at capacity for the past six weeks and has served 5,637 refugees within the last six months alone. Comparatively, in the twelve months ending in March 2003, Vive served a total of 6,171 people. “Astonishing is the right word. Frankly, we’re amazed and a little frightened. My job is to worry about money and we have thousands and thousands of refugees,” Owens said.
Inside La Casa
Inside and out, Vive still looks like a school, from the small playground in the front yard and steps leading up to the double doors to the bright colors and signs hanging on the wall inside. The main office is decorated with posters from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and maps of the world. New refugees sign in at the front desk, and sit down to register with a Vive staff member. Staff members send the names of refugees to Citizenship Immigration Canada (CIC) and arrange for taxis to take the refugees to their appointments in the office seven days a week.
Owens said that most refugees are healthier than the general population for about ten years. “Then McDonalds starts kicking in,” he adds. However, refugees do still need to be examined for tuberculosis when they arrive, and those who are symptomatic are treated by the Erie County Health Department. Some of the refugees that arrive at Vive are so severely traumatized that they need psychological attention. Over 50 percent of Vive refugees are self-identified survivors of torture and many have been jailed, threatened, or raped. While Vive doesn’t have the resources to offer them counseling, they refer those in need to the Monsignor Carr Institute, where they can receive psychiatric help and counseling. Vive covers the expenses for counseling “and we’re happy to do so,” says Owens.
The hallways are covered with signs and artwork, including cards that refugees have sent thanking the people of Vive. “I get cards all the time saying ‘thank you for your help’ and it’s really nice because it’s a hard job,” said Rachael Homewood, a Canisius College graduate and Vive legal assistant.
However, there are regular reminders that this is a home for people who’ve escaped brutal conditions. A painting about Colombia includes the words “No More Blood.” One child’s picture shows airplanes dropping bombs, and houses on fire.
Despite Vive’s financial struggles, their law office is often regarded as the best in North America for refugee issues. Molly Short, a Canisius College graduate and legal office assistant, proudly stated that they get phone calls daily from law offices all over both the US and Canada asking questions. Both Short and Homewood started working with Vive as student volunteers.
Immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Canadian border was closed to refugees for several days while CIC began implementing a new security screening process. Since the new screening process takes two to three hours per case, Vive worked with CIC to set up appointments for refugees while CIC worked overtime to clear the backlog of refugees filling Vive. Currently, all refugees seeking a claim in Canada through Buffalo have to go to Vive to make an appointment.
In June 2002, Canada began its new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). Refugees poured into Canada through Vive before IRPA was implemented. With only 118 beds, Vive struggled to care for all the refugees, turning to area churches for help. While IRPA expands the grounds under which one can file for protection, it also limits refugees to one lifetime claim and can only appeal the decision in specific circumstances. Previously, refugees who lost their cases in Canada could appeal after 90 days out of the country, a provision that made sense since refugees were often too frightened or traumatized to tell their whole story the first time.
At the end of 2002, the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), now a part of the Department of Homeland Security began the National Security Entry-Exit Registration (NSEER) process. Under NSEER, men 16 years and older from specific countries, all of which are predominantly Muslim excepting North Korea, are required to register with immigration officials. People living in the United States who registered and had expired visas were either detained or returned to their native countries. In the months before NSEER, the number of Pakistani refugees seeking protection in Canada spiked from 11 in November 2002 to 550 in February 2003. .
Buffalo Courts Unfriendly to Refugees
In a Common Council meeting October 22, Owens said, “We’ve sent 53,000 people to Canada over the past 19 years. I would love to keep those people here.” The refugee acceptance rate in Buffalo courts is only four percent, compared to the national average of 37 percent. Refugees seeking protection in Canada have a 57 percent acceptance rate and Phoenix, AZ, has the nation’s highest average acceptance rate at 71 percent, according to Vive’s September newsletter.
Individuals seeking asylum must demonstrate that they were persecuted in their native country based on race, religion, nationality, group membership, or political opinion. Greg Gagne, a spokesman for Immigration Review, told The Buffalo News, “Each of these cases is dealt with on their own individual merits.”
However, refugees who are rejected often face torture and death if they are returned to their home country. “We’re talking about life and death here,” Owens said. Vive staff members make certain to give refugees all the facts when they’re determining where to apply for protection.
Volunteering at Vive
Volunteer Coordinator Ann Graham said that a majority of the volunteers are either students completing community service hours or people who are a part of a missions group.
“The fact is [that they’re] helping out people who don’t have help. The refugees have no other place to go, the government won’t help them…I think it’s pretty cool, what they’re doing,” said Susan Johns, a UB student and Vive volunteer. Anyone interested in volunteering is encouraged to contact Ann Graham at (716) 892-4354.
Vive La Casa will be opening its doors on Saturday, November 1, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to everyone in the community. For more information, visit
Vive Country Statistics
(top ten, excluding United States)
Pakistan – 1435
Colombia – 1196
Bangladesh – 385
Venezuela – 236
Uruguay – 211
Sri Lanka – 191
Turkey – 179
Egypt – 167
Argentina – 139
Azerbaijan – 105