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Settling In

Settling In
Immigration Power Fuels Change on Buffalo's West Side

There has been a lot of press about the international culinary delights of immigrants and refugees who dish out delicious ethnic foods at the West Side Bazaar on Grant St. The West Side Bazaar is unquestionably an important factor in the revitalization of the West Side. But there are other émigrés not found in trendy media stories who are quietly making contributions that are truly significant.

Joaquin and Andrea Aristizabal, in front of one of their AirBnB's on 19th Street
Joaquin, Andrea, Sebastian, Jaronimo, Marianna

Joaquin and Andrea Aristizabal are a great example of humble people significantly nourishing growth of Buffalo’s West Side. This kind and genuine couple who emigrated here from Colombia are truly realizing the American Dream, and Buffalo should be thankful. Because in the pursuit of their dream they lent a strong hand toward eliminating the West Side’s historically dangerous gangs and drug dealers. They’ve renovated numerous homes on 19th street and Bird Ave. and are pioneers in making Buffalo’s West side the place to be. I had the opportunity to tour their new BnAirB, at 33 19th street, followed with a conversation over beers at the Essex Pub.

The couple describe ending up in Buffalo as “a beautiful mistake.” They arrived in Buffalo with their two children on September 21st, 2007. Andrea was five months pregnant. The family had fled Colombia and were seeking asylum from those who murdered Andreas’ father, the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia). Formed in 1964 the FARC was originally the military wing of Colombia’s communist party, modeled after Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army in Cuba. But the political idealists of the 1960s disappeared long ago.

“They have no political agenda anymore,” said Joaquin. “Their political agenda died in the 80s. Now they are only in the drug and extortion business. But for the world they still pretend to be a political guerilla organization fighting for the peasant farmers against imperialism. It’s not true.”

“After Pablo Escobar was shot dead in 1993 and the other drug lords were killed or sent to prison,” said Andrea, “the FARC became the new drug lords. My father was a farmer and an activist fighting against the drug trade. He was murdered when he went to help farmers suffering extortion from the FARC. The FARC force farmers to grow cocoa, then they take it from them and sell it to the drug dealers who process cocaine.”

“Our asylum was based on being targets of the FARC,” said Joaquin. “We applied for asylum in Canada but we had a bad lawyer who didn’t do the paperwork properly. We knew we could get asylum in Canada if we were actually in Canada. We had a visa to come to United States so we came here planning to go to Toronto to ask for asylum.”

They flew in to JFK and took a bus from NYC to Buffalo, the nearest US city to Toronto. They arrived in Buffalo on a rainy night with two suitcases, no English and little money. They stayed at the International Hostel downtown, sleeping on bunks and sharing a room with another family. Three days later Andrea went into labor four months early.

Their third child, Sebastian, was born a terribly distressed “preemie” at Children’s Hospital and the family was immediately plunged into despair. “He had every problem there was,” said Andrea, “His lungs didn’t work, his heart didn’t work, his brain was leaking. He didn’t move at all and didn’t make any sounds. He was on life support.”

“After two weeks,” said Joaquin, “they told us we should disconnect him from life support because even if he lived he would have no life. He would be like a vegetable.”

“We said we couldn’t do that,” said Andrea. “So the doctor said there was one last thing they could try, a heart surgery. But they said he might die during the surgery. We told them to do the surgery. So they did it and we waited and a few days later he moved his foot.”

“Oh, my God, we were all so excited that he moved his foot,” said Joaquin. “And then little by little other things started kicking in.”

They spent the next eight months at the Ronald McDonald house while the baby was monitored day and night. Nine years later, Sebastian is now a student at Olmsted Elementary and is a healthy, strong, smart boy. The other two children are students at City Honors. Andrea pulled a family portrait from her wallet to show me the three kids; they all had cute periwinkle satin bows tied around their necks including their German Shepard who also was in the photo

“We consider our dog family,” said Andrea. “I always had a dog, a German Shepard, and I had to leave my dog behind in Colombia. I want a dog for me and because I have children, too. I searched for the right dog and we found him on Craigslist.”

“We had to drive all the way to Jamestown for him,” said Joaquin.

I ask what happened to the plan to go to Toronto?

“After staying for months in the hospital and at Ronald McDonald House with the baby,” said Joaquin, “we met many wonderful people and learned our way around everywhere here in Buffalo. We got here in September and stayed all the winter and then after winter when spring comes the city is born again and it’s like ‘Oh my God, this is really awesome.’ And we thought ‘you know what, we better stay here.’ So we applied for asylum here.”

While at the Ronald McDonald House, Andrea and Joaquin learned English at the International Institute on Delaware. They also met Ronald McDonald House manager Ellen Halley who they now call, “our first ‘American Mom.’” She helped the couple find a place to live through her church after their eight-month stay RMH.

They told me about their first winter and the first time they saw snow. “It was like the movies,” Andrea said, “We were so excited.” Joaquin said he’ll never forget that first time he saw snow, “it looked like a magical white carpet.”

They joked about how they thought they had “jackets” and were all set for winter. Their jackets were more like a light over shirt compared to the winter jackets they were given by the church group their “American Mom” had introduced to them. They laughed about that and said they have fond memories of that first Buffalo winter. The church group and some individuals from the Ronald McDonald house got together that Christmas and surprised them with gifts for the kids, “I had never seen so many toys” said Joaquin and Andrea, getting me all choked up. “They even got gifts for us.”

In 2008 Joaquin met a guy he calls Joe G. He started doing carpentry and odd jobs with Joe, most of which were on 19th street. This was quite different from what he did in Colombia. Although Joaquin had a bachelor’s degree in accounting, in Bogota he ran a coffee shop and a theatre that produced Spanish translations of avant-garde plays by writers like Samuel Beckett, Ionesco, Franz Kafka and other Europeans. “We have a rich theatre culture in Bogota,” said Joaquin. “It’s a big city, eight million people, where you can see maybe seventy different plays on a Friday or Saturday night.”

Joaquin was also an actor, and according to Andrea a very good one.

So he worked with Joe G. who owned a couple of homes on the street and needed help with the renovations. It wasn’t long before Joaquin caught the West Side renovation bug and started securing his own properties to renovate. Seven years later the couple has several apartment rental properties, as well AirBnBs.

Joaquin recalled those early days working on 19th street. He said he would be painting homes and would run to grab some tools from the truck and walk through gang members sitting on the porch and selling drugs on the street.

“There were a lot of gangs here when I started working full time as a carpenter in 2010,” said Joaquin. “They hung out a couple of houses down from where we lived. There were lots of drugs here and shootings in the middle of the day.”

Things were bad. 2010 was the peak of gang warfare on the West Side with the 7th St. gang fighting the 10th St. gang, fighting the 19th St. gang and so on.

“One of the guys from another street came here,” said Joaquin, “and he shot the leader of the 19th St. gang right in front of this house. That was in the middle of the day in 2010.”

That was the murder of Virgil Page in June, 2010 by Kasiem Williams. As an example of just how crazy things were back then, Page’s murder was part of a deal made with “Cheko” Hidalgo, leader of the 7th St. gang. In return for killing Page the 7th ST. gang agreed to murder two rival 10th St. gang members. Nine people were murdered that year on the West Side and many more wounded.

But Joaquin and Andrea hung in there.

“So the gang leader died but the gang was still around,” said Joaquin. “But we kept improving things and good people were moving in and that made the drug dealers uncomfortable. There was this old black lady in her 70s who used to call the police all the time ‘Hey somebody’s selling drugs in front of my house.’ She would stand right in the window and call so everyone could see her on the phone. And she would come out and yell at the drug dealers. She was fearless. She posted a sign on her lawn ‘Don’t sell drugs on my property.’

“But that house she lived in had safety issues with a lot of mold and she was told she had to leave it. She was very upset and running around saying ‘what am I going to do? I don’t want to leave I know this neighborhood already.’

“The guy next door to me said ‘you want to buy my house?’ He wanted to retire.

“So I bought the house and we rushed to fix the house up right away to try and get it ready in time for the black lady to move in. Andrea helped too and we would work the whole day and work again at night. Paint at night and stuff like that so the old woman can move in. She made so much noise about the drug problem we wanted to keep her here on the street. We knew she was fierce and not afraid. So we finished the house and she moved in. Eventually the 19th St. gang and all the other gangs pretty much left because the pressure started working finally.”

The pressure certainly did start working. The FBI got 62 indictments that year and dozens of gang members were sent to do hard time, including the murderer of Virgil Page who got a 25 to life sentence.

Things are much more peaceful now and Joaquin and Andrea focus on their children and their business.

“We own four properties,” said Andrea. “I like the AirBnB because it’s more money every month, the economics are much better. And we like it when other people come from different countries and we talk to them.”

“We had people from 30 different countries,” said Joaquin. “The AirBnB is fun. The money of course is good but it is fun. We get all these people who want to talk and want to tell you all about another culture and other places.”

The nightly rates for an AirBnB definitely add up to more than monthly apartment rent. In fact, if the party is too large for one of their AirBnBs, say ten people, Joaquin and Andrea will rent them their own home and stay at one of their other properties. Last summer they rented out their home and the family rented a cabin in Crystal Beach.

I couldn’t help but wonder how they got the capital to buy properties considering they arrived here penniless.

“Capital?” said Joaquin. “If you work 80 hours a week you’ll have some money left. I would work the whole day for somebody to get some money and then at night work on our project and my wife will come and work with me. Then we go home and the next day just do it again. And we’ll work on Saturdays and Sundays.

“When we stayed in the cabin in Crystal Beach there was a little sign that I took a picture of that said ‘The More I Work the Luckier I Get.’ That is so true, especially if you have a good partner like my wife to work with. Then you can save money and you can stretch the budget. Down payments on our properties were tax returns. But a very important thing is that we were able to find people who believed in us enough to say ‘Ok, I’ll give you the house and you give me the down payment and pay the rest off in four or five years. So the owner of the house held the mortgage. Three of the properties we bought, a person holds the mortgage not a bank.”

It’s undeniable that incredible things are happening on the West Side. Businesses are popping up left and right—Five Points Bakery, Shakti Yoga, West Side Bazaar, Sweetness 7 Cafe, soon to open Public Espresso, to name a few. I get this little jolt of excitement every time I think about spending time on the West side.

When I asked Joaquin and Andrea what their favorite part about Buffalo is, they both said without hesitation, “The people, we love the people.” They described the people in Buffalo as the kindest people they met anywhere.

“The thing with asylum is that you don’t get that much help from the government or any organization,” said Joaquin. “You have to fend for yourself. We found these people from this church called The Simple Way Community Church. It’s like five or six families that just find people and help people. They get together in different places. They don’t have a big church building, they meet in different peoples’ homes. They are good friends to us and helped us and they are still helping families. If a new family comes and they have kids and they don’t have food or clothes, the group puts money in to buy food and clothes. They called us just recently and they say ‘Hey Joaquin, any chance you have something open? We have this woman with three kids and her house is infested with rats. We need to move her out. We found a place for her but we need a week to get it ready.’ So we open up the BnAirB across the street and let her and her three kids stay in the apartment while they fixed up her new place. That was our contribution and the other people got her some furniture and fixed the apartment up so this lady can move in.”

When I asked the couple what they hope for, they said they hope people continue to stay and invest in their communities versus leaving the city and working elsewhere. They talked about their commitment to “buying and selling locally” in Buffalo and really striving to do their part to invest in the community. They also talked about their hopes for continued governmental grants and assistance to help match the energy and local effort to revitalize Buffalo and continue to work to make it a safe place to live with job opportunities. When I asked them if they miss Colombia or have plans of ever returning and leaving Buffalo, they said, “No this is our home now, we love it here.” They talked about traveling and perhaps spending some time in Quebec City to experience the French language and culture there, but with the intention of Buffalo being “our home base always.”

And how do they feel about the changing neighborhood?

“We love the neighborhood,” said Andrea. “There are restaurants around and people around and houses being fixed up.”

“The snowball effect works in both directions,” said Joaquin. “When a neighborhood starts going down bad things pile up and it goes down faster and faster. But when good people start moving in things change. The gangs aren’t surrounded by drug customers who keep them in business. They’re surrounded by more and more good people, so they start leaving or being arrested. When the gangs decide to go more people want to move into the neighborhood. You see people buying houses, young couples getting started. We’re close to Elmwood close to Richmond. It’s really nice, we love it.”

Two months ago Joaquin, Andrea were granted full US citizenship. I almost started crying with happiness for them, I could not be more proud of the US in that moment for making this beautiful couple a part of this country.

Elizabeth Siematkowski authors the Buffalo Black Book. @buffaloblackbook (Instagram)

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