Progressive City Welcomes One and All? Not So Fast.

Utica, New York, set out to revitalize on the strength of immigrant newcomers and found being the “town that loves refugees” is complicated.

Story by Kavitha Rajagopalan

Photography by Alan Chin

Published on

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Two teenage girls sit at a linoleum table in the kitchen of a community center in Utica, New York, playing Uno. It is a late afternoon in January, and outside, daylight is leaning hard into night. They flick their wrists, tossing out cards along with the requisite trash talk: consummate American teenagers. But over their jeans, both of the girls wear long skirts and headscarves — one, a neat little turban, the other a flamboyant pompadour made of two loosely draped, patterned strips of fringed fabric. Zainabo, 17, and Amina, 15, are most definitely American teens in the way they gossip, tease and caress their smartphones. They are also Somali Bantu who left behind vast, dusty refugee camps as small girls to be resettled in Utica, a gently dilapidated, former manufacturing hub tucked into the frosty northern reaches of New York state.

The community center is where Zainabo, Amina and their friends come most evenings to escape chores and clutter and babysitting their younger siblings. Usually, the modest brick building thrums with activity — a local K-pop boy band TOXIC or girl band Black Pearl, with Karen Burmese teens, might be practicing their latest dance moves, clashing with the insistent drumbeat of a traditional Karen Don Dance troupe. The floor might reverberate with the stomps of an ROTC drill team from the local high school. But tonight, the community center is uncharacteristically quiet. Aside from the slap of cards and spurts of laughter from the Uno players, the only other sound is a wispy chorale drifting down a carpeted hallway and through the large hall behind the girls, from a former church nave where a group of Bhutanese Nepali Christians hold their Friday night worship services.

In an hour, Zainabo and Amina will pile into the Prius of Kathryn Stam, an anthropology professor and a kind of den mother for refugee teens, and head to the nearby public library, where their close friend, Muslima, is receiving an award from a local nonprofit for academic excellence in her first semester at college.

At first glance, the neighborhood looks like any other in the working-class, upstate city of 62,000, lined with no-frills, two-story houses built in the 1920s and 1930s and since converted into multifamily residences. Some are decayed and boarded up; others are undergoing hopeful renovations. On the same block as the community center, a new apartment complex has risen alongside simple wood and brick or vinyl-sided houses. But behind the unremarkable facades, a diverse refugee community thrives. Next door to the center volunteers are fixing up an abandoned house so that a refugee family can move in, joining families from their home country that have already relocated to the block. Another house now functions as a Buddhist temple, a colorful flag hanging over the doorjamb and shoes crowded in the foyer. On the corner, a small grocery store sells an assortment of Southeast Asian specialty foods and spices alongside long scarves and bags of hair for weaves.

A boarded up home in Utica

With a population of 60,000 down from more than 100,000, Utica has many abandoned and boarded-up homes. 

This is Utica in its newest manifestation: the town that loves refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005. Dubbed the second-chance city by Reader’s Digest in 2007, or the city with a warm heart on public radio in 2014, Utica is determined to give itself a second chance by giving refugees a home. Yet creating that home has proven complicated.

Many of the newest arrivals are employed in low-wage, night-shift jobs, invisible in the daily fabric of city life and with little opportunities to advance. And while announcements that G.E. and Austrian sensor manufacturer ams AG are planning to open plants in the area have the city feeling bullish about the return of manufacturing jobs to the region, it’s unlikely that the new positions will be filled by refugees, many of whom arrived to the country with little or no formal education.

Meanwhile, the children of these new arrivals have faced their own challenges advancing in the city’s public schools. In April 2015, a group of students represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Utica City Public Schools, alleging that the district has systematically discriminated against refugee students over the age of 16 by funneling them out of the public schools and into inferior alternative programs that don’t offer the opportunity to earn a high school diploma. “Young people are coming to Utica after fleeing violence and persecution only to be shut out by the city’s only public high school,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a published statement. “All children have the equal right to an education. No one benefits when a school district denies kids their shot at the American dream and limits their ability to contribute to society.”

In November, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed his own lawsuit against the school district, alleging discrimination against immigrant students. On April 18, a U.S. District Court judge denied the school district’s appeal to dismiss the state’s case. The district continues to deny the allegations in the complaint.

As the lawsuits wind through the courts, other pressures are mounting for the city’s large Muslim immigrant population. In the wake of the terrorist bombings in Paris this past winter, Utica Councilman Frank Vescera proposed legislation that would place a two-year hold on admitting Syrian refugees into the majority-white city. A month later, a local alternative newspaper, The Utica Phoenix, published a cover story called “Muslims in America: A Question of Peace,” in which the paper’s editor, Cassandra Harris-Lockwood, a local activist long engaged in minority rights and social justice issues, argued that Islam is both inherently misogynistic and violent, writing “ … given the substance of the Koran as spelled out here, it is as though the Muslim religion has a built in ‘sleeper cell’ written into its tenets.”

Utica is by no means the only distressed American city seeking to revive an embattled economy and repopulate empty neighborhoods through immigration. But while Detroit, Baltimore and Dayton, Ohio, have all launched initiatives to attract and retain immigrants, Utica is unique in its focus on refugees. It is also the first to so deeply and publicly grapple with the profound challenges that come after the welcome mat is unfurled.

Revitalization Through Resettlement

Utica has always been an immigrant’s town. It experienced its first boom at the hopeful dawn of the 19th century, when Irish and German immigrants arrived to construct the Erie Canal and stayed after the job was done. Northern Italian silk workers and Polish immigrants leaving the devastation of World War I then grew the town, going to work in the textile mills and other factories that grew around them. Around the same time, African-American “bean pickers” from Florida and Mississippi moved into the area to work on farms and in the factories that thrived through World War II. (The city was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.)

Gradually, the boom quieted into a whisper as textile mills moved south and manufacturing plants closed. By the 1950s, Utica had earned a reputation as a mafia playground and the nickname Sin City. Over the second half of the 20th century, it experienced the same population loss that so many other industrial cities in the region experienced, shrinking from 100,410 in 1960 to 60,651 by the turn of the millennium. As opportunity became scarce in the city, so did income and for decades, the city has been among the state’s poorest. In 2013, 24 percent of the city’s population lived in poverty, compared to 11 percent statewide.

In the early 1980s, the city, with a push from local refugee rights activists, realized that immigrants could again be a force for growth in the city. With support from the local school district and the county government, the region’s voluntary refugee resettlement agency, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees opened its doors in 1981. Over the past three and a half decades, the agency has resettled some 15,000 people from 34 different countries in Utica, about 400 each year. Many more refugees have come to the city through what is called “secondary migration” — after initially resettling in other parts of the U.S., they relocate again to join growing or vibrant communities elsewhere. One of the city’s most visible refugee communities is composed of those who fled the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Nearly everyone you meet points to the new energy and investment that Bosnian refugees brought to East Utica as a turning point for the city.

Today, according to MVRCR, nearly 18 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born, a number its director Shelly Callahan concedes is imprecise, given that refugees may move freely within the U.S. once they have been resettled.

A Vietnamese restaurant in Utica

Pho Mekong, a Vietnamese restaurant, is near downtown Utica.

Public officials in Utica, including Mayor Robert Palmieri, a Democrat, and school district Superintendent Bruce Karam, tout the city’s commitment to refugees. The two officials, both products of the city’s public school system who remained in the region through its hard times, agree that these new Americans are Utica’s last great hope to resurrect itself from the rubble of its post-industrial decline. But even they acknowledge that the road to refugee-driven revitalization has not been without significant hurdles.

Recently, Palmieri convened a committee to focus on “access and inclusion.” The committee, he says, includes leaders from refugee communities and “is specifically designed to facilitate dialogue and remove barriers for communities who haven’t been as involved in the political and economic process and haven’t had the same opportunities.” The mayor has also made a public commitment to diversifying city government. A public agency, including a police or fire department, he says, should “reflect the demographic of the community it serves as much as possible.”

The school district declined to comment on the lawsuits it faces, but Karam has said that the system is hard-pressed to meet the needs of refugees and will continue to be so unless the state increases aid to the schools. “We want to be able to provide the sound basic education, which is guaranteed under the state constitution to all students, including our refugee population,” Karam told Utica radio station WIBX earlier this year “But in order to do this, the funding formula has got to be fixed, and Utica needs to get its fair share.”

Since the lawsuits were filed, the controversial program for refugee students over the age of 16 has been discontinued, but the district continues to offer ESL courses throughout the year for refugees over the age of 21. The adult education floor at the MVRCR, where the ESL classes are held, is a bustling, upbeat place, its walls decorated with student artwork and the sounds of enthusiastic repetition and singing spilling from the classrooms into the hallway. But while the mayor and others praise the program as integral to refugee assimilation, the job market value of the program, which focuses on conversational proficiency and not literacy, remains unclear.

A 2000 study called “The Fiscal Impact of Refugee Resettlement in the Mohawk Valley” by Paul Hagstrom, a researcher at nearby Hamilton College, found that while refugee resettlement can be initially costly, investing in refugees had yielded tangible economic benefits to the region by expanding the labor pool and increasing local revenues through taxes and consumer purchasing. New York Department of Labor data supports Hagstrom’s findings; the Mohawk Valley has seen job counts increase and unemployment levels decline over the last several years. In the last year, private sector employment increased by 0.8 percentage points, a small but significant increase in a region well acquainted with economic hardship. Overall unemployment rates are declining in Utica-Rome from their peak at 10.5 percent in January 2012 to 5.4 percent as of March 2016. Callahan says that MVRCR is able find employment for between 350 and 430 refugees annually through its job placement program, which works with some 60 different area employers, including local restaurants, small manufacturers, hospitals, nursing homes and casinos. The largest employers of Utica’s refugees include a nearby Native American casino and a Chobani yogurt factory. Many of these jobs are minimum wage, night-shift jobs.

From the Refugee Camp to the Factory Floor

Shyam Rai, the eldest son of a recently arrived Bhutanese Nepali family, is one of those night shift workers at the Chobani factory. It takes Rai an hour to commute to the Mohawk Valley plant from the house he shares with two of his sisters, his sister’s 4-year-old daughter, and his two cousins. On a cloudy Saturday, his one day off, he enjoys a cup of milky chai on the family sofa. Rai talks with his cousin, who will become a U.S. citizen the following week, and his brother, who lives a couple of blocks away with their elderly parents, while his niece flings herself on top of a giant stuffed duck she’s just received as a gift.

Rai fled Bhutan when he was 4, joining hundreds of ethnic Nepali who were being driven from the country. He and his infant brother rattled through the dark in his mother’s arms on the back of a giant flatbed transport truck, and were dropped off in the jungle. After a brief harrowing time battling terror, hunger and cholera, he and his family were reunited in a refugee camp. They settled into some kind of dislocated life — a life without reality, without place, without purpose. Refugees in Nepal were permitted to leave the camps in search of work, but they weren’t legally allowed to work inside the country. So Rai, when he reached young adulthood, began sneaking across yet another border into neighboring India to work as a migrant construction worker. There, he camped in makeshift tents set up in the corner of muddy construction sites, hoping that he’d actually be paid at the end of the job. Eventually, he arrived in Utica, where he spends his nights making Greek-style yogurt and his days with relatives and fellow refugees.

Downtown Utica

Downtown Utica

He still refers to Nepal as “my country” — and is married to a Nepali woman who is not a refugee from Bhutan, so she will only be able to join him when he becomes a citizen and can send for her through family reunification.

While Rai and his relatives working in low-wage factory jobs are satisfied for now with long hours and limited opportunities for advancement, they still hope for better. Without more education, the odds aren’t in their favor. One Karen woman told me that her first job was at a pizzeria and it took her over a decade to make her way into her current job as an academic coach and translator in the public school system. At the Chobani factory, refugee workers take pride in the fact that their boss, Chobani founder and CEO Hamdi Ulukaya is himself an immigrant, a Kurd who fled Turkey. Yet most of them will not benefit from Ulukaya’s recent, headline-making decision to give full-time employees shares in the thriving, multi-billion dollar company.

Looking ahead, the local community college is offering a training program in nanotechnology, in hopes of getting more local residents connected to the opportunities anticipated to come with the new high-tech plants opening in the region. Still, such programs are unlikely to benefit refugees, like Rai, who arrived as adults and who have moved out of the intensive support system that characterizes the first 90 days of refugee resettlement. Rai’s niece, though, who will go through the American school system from the beginning and will grow up as a U.S. citizen, may have a shot.

Forty-Two Languages, One School

Thomas R. Proctor High School rises like a behemoth from behind neat blocks of small ranch houses, a sprawling, 500,000-square-foot WPA building on a large campus. The only public high school in Utica, Proctor is attended by 3,000 students, some 500 of whom are enrolled in the school’s ESL program, says Lori Eccleston, the district’s assistant superintendent. Forty-two languages are spoken in the district. And yet, the school only has 12 ESL teachers and, specifically to support its refugee students, eight academic coaches who speak different languages — one Nepali, two Karen, one Burmese, one Somali, one Arabic and two Spanish. Three social workers serve the entire student body.

Budget pressures — Utica is the state’s fifth-poorest school district — have caused the school to increase classroom sizes to up to 31 students in non-ESL classrooms, and even ESL classrooms regularly exceed 25 students. The school’s student-teacher ratio of 17:1 is already higher than New York state’s average of 14:1, and its graduation rate of 70 percent in 2015 (up from 64 percent in 2014) is well below the state’s average of 78 percent.

With such crowded, diverse classrooms, challenges are intense. The school has a high dropout rate and there aren’t enough social workers to handle the needs of resettled students. One teacher working with ESL students describes how she had to adjust her class curriculum after she saw that many of her students, who had never taken written tests, were measuring the line provided for answers at the end of a chapter about measurements. Time must be taken, she says, to teach rudimentary classrooms skills, like raising a hand or writing an answer or looking at a clock. At the class’s 10-week assessment, she pointed with great pride to a classroom full of heads bent over papers, a sight she was seeing for the first time since the school year began.

This type of adjustment and attention is naturally difficult when new resettled students arrive throughout the school year, as they do. The school’s principal, Steven Falchi, says that 77 refugees from Yemen, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and Somalia have arrived at Proctor since September 2015.

Muslima Ali and Sung Jang,

Muslima Ali and Sung Jang, students at Utica College, wait outside the school library. 

Callahan observes that Utica schools have been put in a difficult position.

“We may not have the largest number of refugees, but in per capita terms, our need is great, and funding doesn’t follow in the capacity it should,” she says. Money flows into the school district in part based on test scores, she says, regardless of the fact that the refugee population being served by the district requires more resources than other populations.

Callahan would like to see alternate schools or more innovative and robust models of ESL education in Utica. Even the academic coaching program at Proctor, widely pointed to and celebrated by those inside the school district, which features a two-week “mini-academy” for new arrivals and in-classroom assistance by native-language coaches, is limited in capacity. Although the Karen population far exceeds the Bantu one, there are only two Karen-speaking coaches and one Swahili speaker. A former academic coach observes that, although her primary duties were to assist students, she was often asked by colleagues to interpret or translate or participate in meetings.

Eccleston says that the district is hoping to hire five more ESL teachers this year. Teachers alone though will not be able to meet the needs of the current and future student population, especially those who are arriving in the U.S. as teenagers. Yet, beyond the new hires, there are no changes in policy, programming or resource allocation planned. “This is a welcoming community and our students are doing well here,” Eccleston says. Asked if there was any special programming aimed at addressing possible trauma or post-traumatic stress issues among students that are increasingly being resettled from active war zones, or who have experienced protracted stays in refugee camps with poor infrastructure and social tensions, she replies, “We don’t have problems like that here. Our students are very well-behaved.” Refugee families tend to stick together and communities tend to lead their own outreach and support efforts, she says.

Kathryn Stam, a volunteer and board member at the Midtown Utica Community Center, worries that the school’s unflagging optimism may mask a larger inability to recognize and meet the needs of refugee families. “While some refugees are able to be economic drivers, there are also people who are disabled or traumatized or sick or old.”

High school students

Proctor High School students Zainabo Imani (left) and Amina Osman (right) sit at home with Osman's baby brother, Daudi.  

Meanwhile, Harris-Lockwood isn’t the only Utican whose progressivism hides unexpected prejudice. As the city’s refugee population has shifted from predominantly European to South Asian and Southeast Asian and eastern African, tensions have arisen around cultural differences.

Sandy Soroka is the executive director of a local nonprofit called the Neighborhood Center. Originally established to aid in the integration and socialization of incoming immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, the organization now works with individuals in Utica struggling with mental health and addiction issues. Working with refugees from Asia and Africa, she says, introduces new challenges for aid workers and neighbors unfamiliar with their cultural values and traditions. “There are inherent differences in what they were prepared to face and what we as a community were prepared to face,” she says. “Five years out, there’s still a struggle both for them and for Uticans.”

Asked if refugees have been good for Utica, Palmieri says, “As the influx of refugees has shifted from individuals coming from more developed countries to less developed countries it certainly has created some challenges in the assimilation process. Some examples of challenges are educating people that you can’t start an open fire in your living room, or you can’t hunt wildlife, such as ducks, for food or even something as basic as you can’t go to the bathroom in public.”

But these issues seem comically overblown compared to the difficulties refugees face in fulfilling their basic needs for income and shelter.

Callahan says providing affordable, quality housing is one of the agency’s biggest challenges. In addition to its deeply contaminated soil, currently undergoing remediation, child lead poisoning from old paint is widespread.

We’re Here

Muslima has arrived at the community center; it’s time to go. Zainabo and Amina dash out the door, skittering down the street, shouting “shotgun!” Muslima, a bit older and wiser, chuckles softly and follows them outside. The ceremony, hosted by a nonprofit that encourages promising low-income students to apply for college and supports them with small grants, will take place in an art gallery on the second floor of the library. The gallery walls are lined with framed color pencil drawings — a Volkswagen logo, a horse with an elongated back, a mask of some kind. The room is still empty when they arrive, so the girls park themselves in the back corner, trading pictures of Drake, of a camel with lipstick, of other funny memes on their phones.

The ceremony begins. The gallery’s long white tables have become a veritable rainbow — American-born white students and their parents, black women who have returned to school and their adult children, young Bantu and Arab women in headscarves, South Asian teens. Muslima’s family isn’t here; just Stam and her two friends. One by one, students who have earned a 4.0, a 3.95 and down to 3.5 are called forward to receive their award along with a clunky Dell laptop to help them with their studies. A few minutes into the ceremony someone’s muezzin call app goes off. After the ceremony, a meal of chicken riggie, a local favorite, is served.

Over dinner, Stam shows Muslima a pamphlet from the community center about Utica’s refugee artists; Muslima giggles at the picture of herself on the front cover.

“Is Utica really the town that loves refugees?” Stam asks.

“Yes,” Muslima replies without hesitation. “Well anyway, we’re here, there are so many of us. What else can they do?”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Kavitha Rajagopalan is a World Policy Institute Senior Fellow and author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West, which follows a Palestinian family in London, a Kurdish family in Berlin and a Bangladeshi family in New York. She writes widely on global migration and has taught related courses at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.

Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Central Asia. Domestically, Alan has followed the historic trail of the Civil Rights movement, documented the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and covered the 2008 presidential campaign. He is a contributing photographer to Newsweek, the New York Times and BagNews, an editor and photographer at Newsmotion and a photographer at Facing Change: Documenting America (FCDA). Alan’s work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

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