Utica: The Last Refuge opens with the Azeins, a refugee family of four from Sudan, arriving at Syracuse Airport. After spending six years in a camp in Ethiopia, they have finally made it to the US, where they are welcomed by Abdelshakour, a fellow refugee from Sudan. He sees that they have few belongings so he gives them the winter coats he has brought with him. Nada Musa-Azein is pregnant. They will soon be a family of five and need extra attention because they have no relatives in the area. The resettling of the Azeins is our first narrative thread.
They have arrived in the midst of unprecedented upheaval in US policies towards refugees. Abdelshakour is one of many employees at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR), a local non-profit which works to assist refugees resettling in Utica. We have been embedded in the agency for nearly two years, our second thread, witnessing the hum of resettlement activity morph into activism. We watch as Shelly Callahan, MVRCR’s Executive Director, responds to the constant flux produced by executive orders and court rulings that dominate the news cycle in 2017. She is forced to rework the agency’s budget repeatedly. MVRCR’s resettlement team, made up of a Bosnian, a Russian, an Iraqi, a Karen from Myanmar, and a Palestinian from Iraq, face being reduced to part time or being let go entirely. As refugees themselves, they know well that each lost case is another family not reunited, a potential worker idling in a camp, someone left to suffer.
By the film’s midpoint, Nasradin Azein has already been through three jobs, for a variety of reasons, and is yet seeking a fourth to provide more stability for his family. MVRCR has managed to score several key grants to keep itself viable and has moved into a new building. Still, they have had to lay off several staffers in their Resettlement Unit. With their caseload now reduced by well over half, there is not enough money to cover the unit’s costs. Shelly wonders how quickly they will be able to regain the capacities they are losing if government policies revert to the norm in 2020 or beyond.
Issues related to refugees might seem insignificant to a city writ large, but Utica, NY is different. A small city rebounding after its population fell from a high of nearly 110,000 in the 1960s to a low of about 60,000, Utica is building its recovery around refugees. While the population is still only about 62,000, nearly 20% are refugees and their children. Flight from its urban center has been mitigated by the new arrivals and business is returning to the area.
This economic revitalization is the focus of our third and final thread. Local politicians, from the Mayor on down, extol the virtues of Utica’s diversity. The refugees, they say, are hardworking and dedicated. Mayor Palmieri gushes about the different groups and traces the city’s open attitude towards refugees to the Bosnians, who began arriving in the 1990s. Serendipitously, Bosnians gravitated towards construction and the stucco style facades they favor dot the city. Their crowning achievement is a beautiful mosque in central downtown. Once an abandoned church awaiting funds for demolition and an all too central eyesore, it is now emblematic of Utica’s turnaround.
Now when many local companies find it difficult to staff up, they call Shelly. That is what International Wire Group (IWG) did in January of 2018. They asked Shelly and her staff if they could act as a labor agency for IWG and MVRCR’s employment unit went to work. Five initial hires were trained at IWG and more have followed, including Nasradin Azein. At MVRCR’s suggestion, IWG went the extra distance to provide Cultural Sensitivity Training for the select group of their floor employees who would be charged with training the incoming Burmese workers. The approach seems to be working and IWG’s HR department looks optimistically at refugees as the stable workforce they were previously lacking.
These sorts of stories are not just anecdotal. In April 2018, economics professor Paul Hagstrom, from nearby Hamilton College, stopped by the Center to present staff with the initial findings from his most recent study on the refugee population in Utica. A groundbreaking study he conducted a decade ago determined that refugees in Utica pay back the local debt burden they incur annually in seven years on average. His latest study looks at how refugees engage with local monetary institutions, how long they stay, and more. While the Center’s staffers were surprised by some of his latest findings, they already have a good idea that refugees are less of a burden and more of a boon to the area. They appreciate all the new restaurants and markets. They know their own children are excelling in schools and integrating well into their communities. Paul’s research validates the work the Center is doing and their unique contributions to Utica. Similarly, well known pollster John Zogby has queried Utica’s population and draws conclusions about its welcoming nature. A long-time resident, he takes us through Utica’s history.
Zooming into specific stories and back out to experts to look at the data they have compiled will help us better understand a city that defies current thinking in many ways. These three threads – resettlement stories, the Center and their struggles, and the macro perspective of city officials and local researchers – make up the greater fabric that is Utica, described as “The Town that Loves Refugees” by a UNHCR publication in 2005. Bearing this out, we will dot our narrative with brief stories from refugees who are well established in Utica. Among them: Goga, a Bosnian hairdresser who started the first female refugee owned business in the area; Htay, a Burmese grocer who is also an activist; Sakib, a Bosnian with a thriving construction business; Thet, a Burmese nurse practitioner; and, Ebrima, a refugee from Sierra Leone who works at Rent-A-Center and volunteers as a youth soccer coach.
All the success stories notwithstanding, little of this is easy. As Shelly reminds us, refugees are people who have a lot of ground to make up. We watch Nasradin deal with a car accident before he is fully licensed and walk off jobs without conferring with the Center’s employment personnel. Thankfully for he and other refugees in Utica, their outcomes are largely positive. But the recovery of the city itself and the future of resettlement in the area remain uncertain.
In August of 2018, we captured two scenes that epitomize Utica. First, Donald Trump visited to support local Congresswoman Claudia Tenney. Staffers at the Center went out to protest and were gratified to find that protesters vastly outnumbered supporters, and were greeted by many signs stating that the city loves its refugees. Four days later the Redeemer Cup pitted teams from each of the city’s different ethnic groups against one another in a much anticipated soccer tournament. Sixteen teams competed in 2018. In the final, the East African team beat a mixed Burmese team. Afterwards, players of all ethnicities shook hands and clapped one another on the back in a vivid demonstration of the cooperation that fuels Utica.
The film closes with two brief scenes. First, MVRCR celebrates completion of a large construction project on their new offices and unveils a new organizational identity. Second, Hassan Abbas, formerly of MRVCR’s Resettlement Unit becomes a US citizen. We have heard his story and know well what working at the Center meant to him before he was let go. Many of his former workmates surprise him at the courthouse ceremony. A casualty of budget tightening stemming from the reduced numbers of incoming refugees, he may not work there anymore but he has not been forgotten. And the Refugee Center itself is looking forward.
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