Immigrant’s search for a better life goes horribly wrong

Other than the privacy curtain, it could pass for a hotel room. Clean and bright, there is a bedside table, a lamp, a bureau and a flat-screen TV. K’Paw Wah leaned back on his pillow and, TV remote in hand, switched channels to a basketball game Thursday afternoon.

For most, it is a simple hand movement. For Wah – reed-thin, with stark cheekbones and flowing black hair – it is a triumph of will and spirit.

Only after laborious therapy has the Burmese immigrant of Karen ethnicity regained movement in his right arm. The comfortable room is not in a hotel, but in Terrace View nursing home near Erie County Medical Center. Wah has been hospitalized since a mugging last June left him paralyzed, a disheartening symbol of the assaults and break-ins afflicting the immigrant population on Buffalo’s West Side.

The county executive last week celebrated the recent influx of immigrants, which has staunched the county’s three-decade population bleed. The other side of the immigrant story is K’Paw Wah. He was born and raised in a Thai refugee camp, after his parents fled from oppressive Burmese rulers. He and his two daughters four years ago followed his older brother to Buffalo.

Wah’s dream of freedom ended violently. Heading home from a West Side convenience store late one night, he was jumped by at least two men with, he recalled, “their faces covered.” The attackers, Wah told me in halting but clear English, threw him hard to the ground, breaking his neck.

The thieves took his cellphone but, more than that, left him imprisoned in his body. Friends say he only recently regained movement in one arm and can stand at a walker while supported. Despite recent gains, he likely will always be physically dependent. No arrests have been made.

“Given what he escaped, it’s a terrible irony to come here and have this happen,” said Andy Graham, a family friend and member of St. John’s-Grace Episcopal Church, which aids immigrants.

Wah’s fate is the grimmest reminder of the fragility of the immigrant population. Buffalo’s West Side is the end point for Burmese, Somalis, Burundi and other newcomers. Circumstances render them vulnerable and tough to protect. Language barriers, a lack of translators and a distrust of police related to abuse in their homeland contribute to their problems. Critics say police and city officials have been slow to respond to the challenge. Dozens of frustrated Burmese went public with their complaints this month at a Common Council meeting.

Lisa Strand said similar community outreaches the past several months have spurred good-faith efforts from police.

“There’s recently been a lot of progress,” said Strand, attorney for Buffalo’s Legal Aid Bureau. “But the police need a formal translator-access plan and to grasp the larger scope of this.”

Immigrants like Wah are the lifeblood of the city’s embryonic revival. More than 12,000 of them flowed into the county in recent years. Friends say Wah’s older brother, Tha Pay, his wife and four children have deepening roots.

Wah wants his daughters, 14 and 11, to get more of a chance here than he did. Their hand-drawn “Get Well” cards – one a red-petaled flower, the other a green-leafed tree – hang on his wall.

“I was happy to come here,” he told me, “because my children could go to school and learn English, to have a better life.”

Complimented on his English, he smiled and said, “Yes, I have a little bit.”

His daughters live with their grandfather, who recently lost his wife and speaks little English. Family friend Andy Graham and his wife, Ann – called “Grandma” by the girls – are part of their extended family.

“It’s hard for them,” Ann Graham said. “They had a father who was working, was with them and raising them. He can’t do that now.”

Although police were slow off the mark, spokesman Mike DeGeorge said they are getting up to speed with community meetings, translation efforts, aids to crime reporting and other efforts.

“I think the police realize this is an issue and are trying to find solutions,” said Legal Aid’s Strand.

It’s too late for K’Paw Wah. Hopefully it’s not too late for others.


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Immigrant’s search for a better life goes horribly wrong
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