Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Abdul Sharifu was one of tens of thousands of immigrants who have settled in Buffalo, New York, in the last two decades. Sharifu was a one-man mutual-aid operation — he had access to his cousin’s leased car, which meant he could run errands and give rides to those in need. But the very systemic failures Sharifu was working to patch over claimed him this winter. As journalist Albert Samaha conveys, Sharifu’s story is a window into one of America’s most diverse and unequal cities:

The tragedy underscored inequities that continue to grip the city. Rita Jones, who grew up on Buffalo’s East Side and manages Caudle’s flea market, said the area’s residents have complained for years that the city often neglects to pour snow-melting salt on most of the roads in their neighborhoods, as it does in more affluent and commercial districts. City officials issue blizzard warnings but otherwise leave residents to fend for themselves. Those without fully stocked pantries are more likely to brave the conditions to obtain supplies. Those unable to take time off work have less time to prepare before a storm hits. 

Because of the city’s reputation for harsh winters and its lore of producing hard-scrabble steelworkers toughened by mills that filled their lungs with asbestos and carcinogenic fumes, outsiders’ perception of Buffalo is usually framed by an admiration for its peoples’ resilience. But resilience is exhausting when repeatedly called upon — a trait honed out of necessity, foisted upon those with no choice but to navigate scarcity.  

People turned to Abdul Sharifu because they had nobody else to turn to, and he provided services that nobody else would provide. His death brought pain to those who loved him, but also left a vacuum for those who needed him.