Published April 5, 2016
Ghalia Ajouz and her classmates don’t see an abandoned silk mill on Buffalo’s East Side.
They envision a rehabilitated building that serves as a vibrant temporary housing community for refugees who’ve been relocated to Buffalo. They see a structure that contributes to the economic revitalization of a section of the city that has lagged behind the rest.
The students are members of a School of Architecture and Planning spring studio that focuses on developing short- and long-term housing plans for refugees in the Queen City.
The work they are doing this semester is one of numerous refugee-focused projects at UB, one of the most international public research universities in the U.S.
It’s fitting that Buffalo — known as the City of Good Neighbors and currently experiencing a resurgence following decades of economic decline — should be so welcoming to refugees, says Erkin Ozay, a native of Turkey and an assistant professor of architecture at UB who is leading the studio.
“The families relocating here have had to tackle their own difficulties. I see Buffalo as a beacon of hope for them,” says Ozay, noting that Buffalo is expected to receive 1,200 to 1,500 refugees in the next few years.
“There’s something poetic about a city that had to tackle problems of decline now being hopeful,” he says.
Students in Ozay’s studio spent the first part of the semester researching the various stages of refugee life in Buffalo, from pre- to post-arrival. They visited the West Side Bazaar and met with representatives from refugee organizations to learn about strategies that worked on Buffalo’s West Side, home to many immigrants from Myanmar, Somalia and Bhutan, among other countries.
Then, they developed schematic plans for different housing types, focusing on the Broadway-Fillmore section of the East Side. Throughout the project, they’ve collaborated with partners at the International Institute of Buffalo and Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services.
“The East Side already has this proud history of immigration,” says Ozay. “The idea is, what strategies can we devise to provide better, more affordable housing to satisfy the day-to-day needs of resettled families, as well as their social needs and how they are integrated into the community.”
Toward that end, the students were split up into groups, one to design plans for a “welcome house,” while the other is looking at long-term rental housing strategies.
Ajouz, the architecture student, knows what it’s like to live in a new country. She came to Buffalo three years ago from Lebanon to study architecture at UB. In her native Lebanon, she served as a volunteer helping Syrian refugees.
“For every four Lebanese, there is one Syrian refugee right now,” says Ajouz. “There are also a half of a million Palestinian refugees. Lebanon is a very small country, about one-tenth the size of New York State.”
The transition to life in the U.S. is not easy for refugees, many of whom come from nations devastated by war. “For the first three months of their arrival, they are in what’s called the honeymoon phase,” Ajouz explains. “They’re in a better place, away from what they have seen before. After that 90 days, they start feeling guilty. They think about family they left behind, or family who were killed.”
Ajouz and her classmates are spending the rest of the semester finalizing the preliminary designs they drafted. Ajouz’ group focused on revamping the former Duffy Silk building at 1270 Broadway. They wanted to use an existing building because there are numerous vacant properties on the East Side.
Their design includes retail space on the first floor to encourage the new residents to interact with the larger community. “We want integration, not just resettlement,” Ajouz says.
The students’ plans also feature an active courtyard that includes space for a garden, which serves two purposes: it allows refugees to grow their own food – some of which may be plants and vegetables from their native country – and it’s a psychological mechanism. “Think about it, if you are living somewhere for six months, would you plant something? Probably not,” Ajouz says. “Growing plants means it’s more long-term. It helps take their mind off of the guilt.”
While the studio is focused on two types of housing plans, there’s more to it, says Ozay, the professor leading the course. “We want to see if we can contribute to the urban rejuvenation of the East Side through this, especially because there already is some momentum building there,” he says.
The influx of refugees is helping to drive Buffalo’s resurgence, says Isok Kim, an assistant professor of social work at UB whose research focuses on social determinants of health and mental health among immigrants and refugees.
“The refugee communities are very active and visible in Buffalo. As Mayor Byron Brown has repeatedly mentioned, they are singularly responsible for the uptick in population growth in the City of Buffalo. They are helping to revive Buffalo’s West Side. They generate economic growth through various entrepreneurial endeavors, and add invaluable cultural and linguistic diversity to Western New York,” says Kim.
Kim is one of numerous UB faculty members who have worked with refugee populations locally and across the globe. He is a founding member of the Refugee Health Summit, a major UB-community initiative to address health issues that affect refugees. This year’s summit happens Saturday at the Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Center in downtown Buffalo.
Kim is also leading two community-based participatory research projects — the Burmese Community Behavioral Health Survey and a qualitative study that aims to understand specific barriers to health and health care among Buffalo’s Burmese population. And he’s teaching a graduate level course titled “Responding to Refugees and Immigrants.”
It’s important that research universities like UB address refugee issues, says Kim.
“We can no longer cover our eyes and ears and simply ignore what’s happening beyond the United States, because we are intricately and intimately involved in the perpetuation and worsening of the refugee crisis around the world in this global economic and political environment.”
Some other UB refugee-focused efforts include: