War Refugee Trains Americans to Fill Buffalo’s Skills Gaps

Bassam Deeb arrived in the United States as a teenage refugee. It was 1976, and his family had fled Lebanon, a country mired in a civil war that would last until 1990 and cost the country an estimated 120,000 lives.

Deeb, 15 at the time, spoke no English and could find no classes for a foreign speaker. But individuals stepped up to help. His aunt gained permission for him to sit in on an eighth-grade class at the Catholic parish where she worked. And a reading specialist at an adult-literacy center created a curriculum just for him. Deeb credits these efforts with helping him to succeed in his new American high school. As a result, he went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the State University of New York at Buffalo and a PhD from Kent State University.

Today Deeb is president of Trocaire College, a small, not-for-profit Catholic school in Buffalo, New York, and he is committed to returning the favor to his fellow U.S. citizens.

Let’s focus on a robust modern system that gives people a fair opportunity to access what this country has to offer and, in return, allows us to benefit from what these folks can bring to our environment.

“All of the people who have helped me along the way, they could have done their jobs without going the extra mile,” Deeb says. “That’s why I have chosen to work for institutions that are very focused on giving people the opportunity to succeed.”

At Trocaire College, which focuses on providing non-traditional students with career skills, this means not only helping American students get good jobs, it also means assisting with the economic rejuvenation of Western New York.

For example, after learning that area hospitals had a growing need for registered nurses with baccalaureate degrees, the college recently added a four-year nursing degree to its associate’s degree program. Many of Trocaire’s students are returning to school after time in the workforce, or may be the first in their family to attend college.

“Western New York has developed an economic focus on healthcare,” Deeb explains in an interview for the Trocaire College web site. “As people move into the area, and current residents require additional training, and their family members need training and education — that’s the role that we’re going to play.”

Under Deeb’s presidency, Trocaire College has also launched a partnership with a nearby public school district and others to create a health and technology career pathway for area high school students. Beginning in their freshman year, participating students receive additional, work-related curriculum and activities and are eligible to complete an associate’s degree at Trocaire tuition-free.

“That philosophy of education for practical outcomes — to find work — is instilled in me,” Deeb says. “Employment and economic improvement can be the focus of a successful institution of higher learning.”

Deeb says some people may not expect, or perhaps even believe, that a Lebanese native would dedicate his career to improving Buffalo’s economic prospects. But he would rather concentrate on the work, on what he and other immigrants can do to help bolster the local economy. “There will always be a portion of the population that will forever be fearful and distrusting of anyone who looks different. I don’t know how to change that, and I don’t know that it’s worth the effort,” Deeb says. “Let’s focus on a robust modern system that gives people a fair opportunity to access what this country has to offer and, in return, allows us to benefit from what these folks can bring to our environment.”

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