Ask Ali Kadhum, MSW '14, when he arrived in Buffalo, and he
gives the exact date: May 7, 2008.
He and his wife, Emaan Saad, and her daughter, Noor, were lost
and a little panicked that day in the Buffalo Niagara International
Airport at the end of a journey that had begun two years before
when they fled Iraq, and included stays in Iran, Syria and
But when they found their way out of the arrival area, here was
a little crowd with a banner reading “Welcome Ali, Noor and
For a refugee, Kadhum says, arriving in a new home is “the
moment of hope and future.” The welcome committee from the
Church of the Nativity in Tonawanda, N.Y. was his first impression
Six years later, almost to the day, Kadhum participated in the
School of Social Work commencement where he was honored with the
Hazeltine T. Clements Memorial Award recognizing a graduating MSW
student who demonstrates exceptional concern for human dignity and
cultural competency in field placement.
At the same hour Emaan was receiving a nursing degree from
D’Youville College. He raced from his ceremony to hers.
Kadhum’s story is more than the story of one refugee
family settling successfully in a new land. It is the story of a
compassionate newcomer using his considerable organizing skills and
energy—and now, critically, his training as a social worker
in the UB School of School of Work MSW program—to do what he
can to make life easier for all refugees arriving in Buffalo.
He is a care coordinator with Jewish Family Services and a case
manager with Lake Shore Behavioral Health’s Lower West Side
Counseling. After work, he’s a tireless community
Recently, some 1,500 refugees a years have been resettled in
Buffalo—coming from Bhutan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea,
Ethiopia, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congolese, Rwanda,
Burundi, Central African Republic, Cuba, Burma, Vietnam, Liberia,
and French- and Swahili-speaking African nations, to list recent
places of origin. Most arrive traumatized by the events that
Journey’s End Refugee Services helped Ali and Emaan get
oriented in the months after they arrived. Everywhere they turned
people were smiling. Even that took getting used to. “We came
from a difficult life. We never saw smiles,” Kadhum says. He
found a job making portable planetariums at Science First.
A community activist in Iraq—he’d been organizing a
charitable foundation before the murder of a colleague finally
forced him to flee—Kadhum wanted to volunteer in his new
home. He was introduced to Voice Buffalo, an interdenominational
community organization. Voice sent him to a weeklong leadership
course in New York City sponsored by the Gamaliel Foundation.
Kadhum proudly says Barack Obama once attended the same course.
Back in Buffalo, because language felt like a barrier—he
speaks good English, but with an accent and not as fluently as he
speaks Arabic—Kadhum found a base for volunteering with the
Buffalo Immigrant and Refugee Empowerment Coalition, where
everyone’s English is a second language. In 2009 he became
its president, a post he still holds.
The coalition had been focused on six broad areas such as
education and housing that affect all refugee communities. When
Kadhum polled refugee community leaders about their priorities in
late 2013, they responded with 32 specific issues, ranging from how
to translate and transfer academic degrees from the homeland to the
need for embassy services such as obtaining birth certificates and
visas to educating parents about children’s rights and what
is considered neglect or abuse.
Kadhum believes that ideally each newcomer community would have
its own organization to address its own particular needs.
“We don’t have money and we don’t have
resources, but we have time,” he says. He used his
time—juggling his MSW program, jobs and volunteer
work—to found the Iraqi American Society (IAS), now a 503c
organization. He credits his SSW faculty advisor, Kathleen Kost,
for guidance through the steps of formalizing the nonprofit’s
The organization—it welcomes all Arabic-speaking
newcomers, not just Iraqis—is pursuing four
community-specific priorities that the Iraqi community identified.
IAS has organized committees of volunteers to provide case
management beyond the six months that settlement agencies can
provide; Arabic language instruction for children, because they
won’t be receiving that instruction in school; social
programming for the purpose of community-building—such as a
Thanksgiving celebration for 200 this past fall; and, lastly, a
women’s empowerment committee, the first such in any local
Kadhum recognizes that the refugee experience is incredibly
complex. In instances of forced migration, the newcomer has likely
left behind a life of fear, anxiety and trauma. The new life in
Buffalo would seem to be less stressful but it requires adjustments
to a radically different (or completely novel) social services
system, different culture, food, weather, people, language,
concepts of health and health care.
“Many refugees, when they arrive, have no hope,”
Kadhum says. “They had an identity and then one day lost
everything.” He has recently referred a destitute physician
who had come to Buffalo as a refugee and was now facing eviction
from his lodgings to a job counselor who found the man work as a
cleaner, which he was grateful to have.
“People start to build again from zero. They want to
recapture the dreams they’ve been pursuing since childhood in
three or four years,” Kadhum says. “Opportunity here is
For the social worker, no matter how culturally competent, the
challenge of making a useful intervention to solve a
refugee’s problem will probably start with language. Because
he works with people from outside the Arabic- and English-speaking
worlds, Kadhum often needs the services of a translator to help a
client. And when communication is established, the next impediment
may be a cultural reluctance to discuss almost anything with a
Ali says that he often sees clients at Lower West Side
Counseling first as a case manager only. If those interactions lead
to trust, he may be able to offer counseling services when needed.
He might find himself working with a woman who says she’s
never before talked with a man outside her family. Kadhum takes
care to explain the professional obligations of a counselor; that
what is said in his office, doesn’t leave the office.
All this before the real work of counseling can begin. And then
the counseling itself may be fragmented and slowed by the need for
translation and by how unnatural it is to have a client-counselor
relationship after a lifetime in a cultural that has no comparable
point of reference.
At the community level, Kadhum sees refugees making successful
adjustment to their new surroundings, but he also sees refugees
settling into communities of their countrymen and women, where they
can maintain a semblance of familiar life and speak the home
language and not English.
He’s sympathetic: the community support is good. He says
his wife, Emaan, who was a medical student before she was uprooted,
would have been utterly lost beyond the confines of her
neighborhood in Bagdad. That was the way of life there. But it
doesn’t work as well here. For one thing, the children grow
up speaking fluent English and are comfortably familiar with the
larger community; inevitably they will clash with parents who stay
isolated in their home communities.
Emaan Saad learned to drive. Now she commutes from Amherst to
her job in Buffalo in her own car.
What works (and what doesn’t) to help integrate refugees
into Buffalo is a topic that research may begin to bring light to.
Kadhum plans to be an active consumer of research services offered
by the School of Social Work’s newly formed Immigrant and
Refugee Research Institute of which he is an advisory board
Kadhum hopes to see each refugee community start it’s own
self-help society. To that end, he and others are working with the
Buffalo mayor’s office to secure a building to house the
groups in what would be the Buffalo Community Culture Center.
“This is now my country,” he says. “It gives
me respect and love and opportunity.” He hopes all families
who find refuge in Buffalo will one day enjoy the same sense of
belonging. He’s working to see that they can.
-Judson Mead, Mosaics, Spring 2015