Fire Strikes Refugee Housing in Buffalo: How You Can Help

By Rachel Nusbaum,

On the night of July 21, 2016, a house in Buffalo, New York caught fire. Next door: the apartments of 14 newly arrived refugees from around the globe.

On the first floor lived two Burmese men, as well as a Congolese family of three. Upstairs, a Colombian family with 2 kids, and a Rohingya family of 5.

The fire started at about 10:30pm and shortly after the families were evacuated. “By one o’clock in the morning, it was clear that the families were going to be homeless,” said Pamela Kefi, Director of Program Development and Integration at Jewish Family Service of Buffalo and Erie County. “Because of the water damage from the fire department’s efforts to put out the fire next door, the ceilings and walls collapsed. Everything in their homes was soaked or contaminated.”

Kefi was one of the JFS-Buffalo staff members who rushed to the scene of the fire in the early hours of Friday morning to check on the newly arrived refugees, before the Red Cross was called in.

The families were temporarily placed in hotels. Everyone was safe, but it wasn’t the start to their new lives Kefi wanted for them. “They were all new arrival families in that building, so this is very difficult for them.”

One of the families, Rohingyas from Myanmar, had just arrived in the United States the night before. They have three children, ages 12, 8 and 5. “They have very limited English. So there’s a great need for our staff to be deeply involved in all aspects of the emergency response,” Kefi said.

Part of the JFS-Buffalo resettlement team’s role is simply to reassure the new arrivals. “A few days after the fire, we learned that one little boy, the son of the Colombian family, was really worried and kept asking his dad if they were going to have to go back to Colombia. So our staff reassured him that he is not going back there. We told him we are just going to get him a new, safe place to live.”

Ordinarily, Kefi and her team provide an in-depth orientation during a refugee’s first few days in Buffalo, teaching them to navigate the town including transportation and essentials like shopping, as well as helping to get the kids enrolled in school and the parents in English classes, if needed. The fire has put much of those usual lessons on hold. But Kefi and her staff were working overtime to get them into new apartments as quickly as possible.

“We’ve obtained an apartment building now, so everyone will have a place to go. Right now we’re getting the utilities turned on and refurnishing the apartments,” Kefi told

“The next steps are to get everybody back in their homes and then to assess what else needs to take place, to move on from the emergency and get back to normal,” said Kefi. She’s looking forward to getting the impacted families adjusted to the more routine aspects of everyday life in Buffalo: getting the kids in school and teaching the parents how to use the busses to get around from their new address.

JFS is HIAS’ resettlement partner in Buffalo, and together we have resettled 250 refugees so far this year. HIAS is assisting JFS Buffalo during this emergency, providing emergency financial assistance to ensure that all the refugees who have been impacted by the fire are able to be rehoused as quickly as possible, thanks to the ongoing efforts of Kefi and the team at JFS in Buffalo.

As of this writing, they have located new housing for all the families and are working to get these spaces furnished. They are asking the community to help out, particularly with key furniture items, like couches, tables, chairs and dressers.

Anyone wishing to donate furniture should contact JFS directly at (716) 883-1914, extension 337, or via email at They encourage furniture donations be dropped off whenever possible, although delivery can be arranged for particularly needed items. 

Those without furniture to donate (or too far to deliver it) can still help out. Kefi has created a gofundme page, where they are accepting additional donations

Search HIAS