Being a Good Neighbor Starts with a Welcome!

Welcoming Week Logo


Welcoming Week is a national campaign and celebration to showcase communities that strive to “be more welcoming places for all, including immigrants.”

Since Buffalo’s nickname is “The City of Good Neighbors,” our theme is Being a Good Neighbor Starts with a Welcome!

Here are profiles of local foreign-born people describing their journeys and how Western New York welcomed them, with the hope that their stories can illustrate the many ways to be a good neighbor.

Were you born in another country? What is your story? How were you welcomed in Western New York? Let us know!

Janne Sirén

Janne Sirén

While he had been to the United States as a tourist, Finnish art historian Janne Sirén first moved here to become a student at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was a bit of a culture shock.

“I was not in any way prepared, for example, for the culture of kegs and beer games that are part of the American collegiate experience, “Janne Sirén says. “I’m not saying it was a negative, but it was just very, very different.”

Sirén says he was a curiosity in college because of his differences from most in the student body, which did not include many international students. He adds that he felt welcomed as his fellow students tried to teach him about the USA, including the nuances of American football.

After graduation, he continued his studies, getting his M.A. and Ph.D. in Art History at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. After that, he worked around the world, including stints as a university professor in Jerusalem and then as the director of two art museums in Finland. By his count, Dr. Sirén has lived in about seven countries and 14 cities, which adds context to his reception in Buffalo.

It was in 2013 that he was recruited to become the Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, formerly the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Given the gallery’s reputation of having one of the world’s greatest collections of modern and contemporary art, he says it was “a very easy yes” when asked if he was interested in the job.

“The AKG has a legacy of seeking out the artistic revolutions of tomorrow before tomorrow thinks of them as such,” Sirén says. “To celebrate a Warhol or a Jackson Pollock once they have become globally recognized superstars of Modern Art is one thing, but to do that when no one else in the institutional or art collecting realm thinks of them in this way is a totally different thing.”

The 161-year-old institution’s reputation wasn’t the only thing that drew him to the position.

“I had never moved to a city that was so hospitable and so warm to a newcomer and a newcomer’s family,” he says as he admits that a sense of welcome would be the expected reception for the incoming director of one of the nation’s leading cultural institutions. However, he felt that way before anyone knew who he was or even before he got the job.

When he came to Buffalo for his first in-person interview, all the prep materials and background information the museum provided were destroyed in a FedEx facility in New York City, thanks to Hurricane Sandy.

So, when he arrived, he did some “field research” by going to a few bars and restaurants in Allentown. All the people were affable, and that was his continued experience throughout the series of interviews that followed.

Sirén shares that random people were so nice that his wife jokingly wondered if the Buffalonians they met were all actors staged for their arrival.

“Of all the places where I’ve lived, I’ve never encountered that similar hospitality and warmth in an anti-elitist, down-to-earth way,” the museum director reminisces.

Dr. Sirén explains that sometimes newcomers can feel disenfranchised or like they must put up an act in their new community, so allowing them the chance to tell their story can be empowering.

“By exhibiting our Buffalo spirit of being a City of Good Neighbors, by allowing the people who come here to tell their stories, we can, as Buffalonians, grow ourselves and give a platform for hearing other experiences, other voices, and learning from them,” Sirén says.

Click here to meet Thom Tran from Vietnam

Thom Tran

Note that Thom will appear in a fundraiser for the International Institute of Buffalo. From Refugee to Comedy: An Evening with Thom Tran will happen on Thursday, September 28.

Click here to meet Anita Butera from Italy

Anita Butera


Click here to meet Nadin Yousef from Iraq

Nadin Yousef


Click Here to Meet Rubens Mukunzi from Rwanda

Rubens Mukunzi