A Doorway to Freedom in Buffalo’s Vive Shelter

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© Courtesy of Jericho Road Community Health Center

Buffalo’s Vive Shelter has been called “a new underground railroad” for refugees, though it has never been a secret.

In 1984, a group of Catholic sisters in Western New York housed asylum seekers en route to the Canadian border. Their convents were used so often that they decided to create a standalone shelter specifically for that purpose. At the time, the vast majority of asylum seekers were coming from Central and South America, and most of them were planning to make a refugee claim in Canada.

Since 2015, Vive has been a program of Jericho Road Community Health Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and Federally Qualified Health Center. Over its 37-year legacy, Vive has seen more than 100,000 people come through its doors, seeking safety and hope for a new beginning.

“We see different waves of people coming through depending on what’s happening in the world,” says Vive Director Matt Tice. “In the ‘80s, that was mostly Central and South Americans. Today, we see a lot of people from Haiti, Sri Lanka, Angola, the DRC, and still parts of Central and South America. But it can change in an instant.”

In addition to demographic changes like Tice describes, the shelter has also seen a huge increase in the number of people seeking U.S. asylum. This change has drastically altered Vive’s operations from its early days. Whereas people en route to Canada stay in the shelter for around a week, those seeking U.S. asylum can stay for up to two years or sometimes longer.

The shelter, which has permanent beds for 120 people but can scale up to accommodate more in a pinch, provides housing, meals, medical care, and legal aid to around 1,000 asylum seekers each year. On-site support programs include ESL classes, structured children’s activities, and behavioral health and trauma therapy, plus job training and parenting classes through partnerships with other local nonprofits. Children who are staying long-term enroll in Buffalo Public Schools. Adults find jobs after they receive their working permits, a process that Vive’s legal team helps with.

Asylum seekers who come to Vive are all unique. Their situations are often complicated. Some people fly into New York City and travel directly to Vive, arriving at the shelter with little more than a small suitcase and an address scribbled on a scrap of paper. For some, the journey to Vive takes months or even years of walking through jungles and across many borders while enduring unbelievably dangerous conditions.

Though the specifics are different, nearly all of Vive’s residents have one thing in common—they are fleeing dire conditions in their home countries due to violence, war, political persecution, or other kinds of danger.

This danger is not merely hypothetical. Over 75 percent of those seeking U.S. asylum through Vive have endured torture.

Ian* from southern Africa fled his home country after his father was murdered and Ian himself felt threatened. He came directly to Vive after flying to NYC.

“When I came, I was sick. Vive did everything,” he says. “They gave me a bed, they gave me clothing, they told me to make myself at home and feel safe.”

After harrowing journeys, residents like Ian describe Vive as a refuge where they finally feel like they don’t have to run or look over their shoulders anymore.

“The two words I hear most often from new arrivals are ‘hope’ and ‘safe,’” says Tice. “Those are the ideas that Vive really represents to people from all around the world.”

To support Vive’s work on behalf of asylum seekers, visit jrchc.org/give-vive

* Name has been changed to protect client privacy

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Vive assists those who wish to make a refugee claim in Canada or who are seeking asylum protection in the United States, by providing safety, shelter, food, healthcare, and legal help.

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