Health & Human Services

Refugee Renewal

Absorbing the displaced from overseas can be a tough urban task. But for a city in decline, it can be an unexpected opportunity.
by | May 2005
 

Mohawk Street in east Utica is a typical old ethnic retail street--a block or so of three-story brick buildings, flanked on either side by another block of wood-frame houses turned into small shops and modern- day convenience stores surrounded by parking lots. Mohawk Street isn't downtown, but it's less than a mile away, built more than a century ago to serve as the commercial center of the Italian neighborhood around it.

Every industrial town in the Northeast has a street like Mohawk, sometimes two or three, depending on how many different groups arrived during the great European immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of them are struggling today--especially in places such as Utica, which has lost almost half its population in the last 50 years. As the surrounding residential neighborhoods have emptied out, property values have declined, and most of the once-thriving inner-city retail centers have hollowed out.

Yet Mohawk Street is doing well. The buildings are in good shape. All the storefronts are occupied. The mixture of businesses is eclectic but homey--an old Italian bakery, a new Vietnamese restaurant, a locally owned furniture store. The surrounding neighborhood--made up mostly of two-story houses from the late 1800s, built close to the street with two-story porches--is modest but stable. Houses that were offered at tax sales for $2,000 only a few years ago are now worth $40,000 or $50,000. Most of the owners have a steady job--sometimes two or three--and are constantly improving their homes. Instead of shriveling away, east Utica is coming back--not fashionably but with a solid working-class optimism that seemed dead in this part of the industrial Northeast a generation ago.

Utica's urban revival owes its success to a tragedy of epic proportions that took place some 4,000 miles away: the civil war that wracked the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic. Eight hundred thousand ethnic Bosnians were displaced. Over the ensuing decade, a quarter of them were resettled in the United States. Twelve thousand came to New York State, and thanks in part to a hospitable faith community committed to assisting refugees, more than 4,000 Bosnian refugees arrived in Utica between 1993 and 2001.

That's one-half of 1 percent of the ethnic Bosnians who were forced to leave their homeland. But it's a huge influx for an American city whose population was shrinking during that same time from 68,000 to 60,000 people. Industrious and entrepreneurial, the Bosnians quickly found opportunity in a place that had seemed to offer little hope to anybody. They took advantage of a labor shortage by moving into entry- level manufacturing jobs. They took advantage of a housing surplus by picking up homes cheaply. And coming from the chilly northern Balkans, they weren't fazed by Upstate New York's harsh winters.

"Everybody suddenly wanted to rent to the Bosnians," says Mayor Tim Julian, whose own Italian ancestors occupied the same neighborhood decades ago. "If the landlord didn't do the work, the Bosnians would just do it themselves."

YOUTH AND ENERGY

Immigration has been a consistent source of renewal for American cities, going back to the Irish and Germans who brought economic, social and political energy to urban neighborhoods in the 1840s. It's well documented that a new wave of immigration since the 1970s has done the same. The foreign-born population in the United States has tripled during this time to almost 30 million. Mostly from Asia and Latin America, the new immigrants have changed the landscape of cities such as Miami, New York and Los Angeles--and are now changing smaller towns across the nation.

Buried in these statistics, however, is a second and less obvious trend: In the past two decades, older American cities and suburbs have increasingly absorbed not just immigrants but political refugees. In the past 30 years, almost 2.5 million refugees from around the world have been resettled in the United States. Cambodians have come to Massachusetts; Kurds to Tennessee, Hmong to California's Central Valley and Minnesota's Twin Cities. The Bosnians have settled mostly in Utica, St. Louis, Chicago and Phoenix. In most of these cases, the local refugee population grew from "never heard of them" to 10 percent in just a few years.

Because political unrest has affected so many cultures in the past three decades, there is no single profile of a refugee. Many, such as the Bosnians, bring with them customs relatively similar to those of a Western country. Others--ranging from Cambodians to Kurds--come from places that are culturally quite different from the United States but have been adaptable enough to thrive without too much trouble. But some of the refugees have come straight from rural societies far removed from Western culture. The Hmong barely had a written language when they first arrived from Laos. African Bantus--an increasing presence in Utica and several other cities--reached the U.S. following lengthy stays in Kenyan refugee camps and after escaping civil war in Somalia.

Most refugees arrive through a highly organized worldwide system of resettlement that involves the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services, nonprofit organizations of all kinds, and local church groups that feel a moral imperative to help. There is a growing consensus that, however tragic the political unrest elsewhere has been, the net result has been good for urban America, and especially for declining cities that seemed to have few promising options for recovery. "There is a sea change in this country," says Ann Morse, director of the New American Community project at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There is a much broader recognition since the late '90s that this is a good thing for the economy and for communities and neighborhoods."

Because they are beneficiaries of an international relief effort, the refugees arrive with an array of financial and other resources that other immigrants don't bring. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement provides not only cash benefits to the refugees themselves but also funds for local agencies to use in workforce training, English language education and a variety of other services. For a city undergoing economic distress, this is a considerable financial boost. Like most immigrants, the refugee newcomers bring with them youth as well as enthusiasm; most are quite a bit younger than the average resident of the host community, especially in a place such as Utica, which has suffered from so many years of out-migration.

ENTERING POLITICS

Historically, academics have described three phases of adjustment that most immigrants go through. First they rely on--and create-- ethnic social and cultural organizations to help them feel at home. Then they organize themselves economically around banks, restaurants and small businesses, which provide credit, jobs and other components of financial stability. Only after these first two steps are well underway do immigrants become active politically.

The current refugees reflect some of these settlement patterns. On the other hand, they are in no way typical immigrants. They have been forcibly removed from their homelands against their will. Often they have spent years in refugee camps overseas, causing work skills and even resources for daily living to atrophy. Sometimes they are traumatized. In Lowell, Massachusetts, says Victoria Fahlberg, a clinical psychologist who serves as the director of the One Lowell community action organization, "the Cambodian community is different because they came from a genocide."

The Cambodians arrived in America after an intense and bloody civil war in their country--and settled in Lowell largely to work for Wang Computer Corp. Between 1980 and 2000, Lowell's population grew 14 percent, from 92,000 to 105,000. The population of Asians grew by almost 3,000 percent. They settled at first in "The Acre"--Lowell's traditional port of entry for immigrants from everywhere. In some older neighborhoods near downtown, half the population is now Cambodian.

Lowell has always been a hard-core ethnic politics town, and the path plowed by the previous ethnic groups--Italians, French-Canadians, Greeks, Latinos and Portuguese--gave some Cambodians an obvious avenue toward integration.

As in many Massachusetts towns, politics in Lowell is not just governance but recreation. "If you walk into a bar on a Tuesday night," says Jeffrey Gerson, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, "instead of the NCAA you'll see everybody watching the city council."

Lowell's leaders launched a serious effort to make the newcomers comfortable with the city's political traditions. The One Lowell coalition actively recruited Cambodians onto the boards of civic groups, as well as promoting voter education and registration. The One Lowell group produced a brochure called "Why Should I Vote" and published it in Khmer, as well as Portuguese and Spanish. An immigrant, Rithy Uong, was elected to the Lowell City Council in 1999 only a few years after leaving rural Cambodia. Council seats are contested city-wide, so Uong had to court a broad constituency to win.

But Lowell's political integration efforts have not been an unqualified success. After winning three two-year terms, Uong chose not to seek reelection because of an ethics investigation. A guidance counselor at a local high school, he had accepted a promotion even though a previous ethics ruling indicated he could not do so while serving on the council. In addition, there has been internal warfare over control of the local Buddhist temple.

Even today, two decades after Asian refugees began arriving in Lowell, only a third are naturalized citizens, compared with half among a comparable group of Asian immigrants nationwide. Many are weary of the way politics disrupted their earlier lives and, more than ordinary immigrants, choose to "keep their head down" and keep their affairs private. "A lot of leaders in the Cambodian community are reaching out all the time," says Fahlberg. "And yet there are people out there who are still totally isolated.

SEIZING THE CHANCE

It is hard to imagine a less likely engine of urban opportunity than Utica. Situated alongside the Erie Canal halfway between Albany and Syracuse, Utica once thrived on its location in the Mohawk Valley--the only natural break in the Appalachians from Maine to Virginia. Long a blue-collar ethnic town, Utica has been the hardest hit of Upstate New York's major cities, not only from the loss of manufacturing but from the closure of Griffiss Air Force Base in nearby Rome.

The population has withered from more than 100,000 people to barely 60,000. The number of white residents declined by more than 20 percent in the metropolitan area in the 1990s alone. Some picturesque outlying towns are still thriving, but only by feeding off the exodus from the city.

But thanks in large part to a strong church network--and perhaps to the fact that long-term decline has made the area more receptive to new residents--Utica has become one of the leading refugee centers in the entire United States. According to a study by Reed Coughlan of Empire State College and Judith Owens-Manley of Hamilton College, 14 percent of the city's population is now made up of refugees. In the past 20 years, Utica has welcomed large numbers of refugees not only from Bosnia but from Vietnam and the former Soviet Union.

The first few dozen Bosnian refugees arrived in 1993, most of them rural in background. Muslim but secular, the Bosnians came largely from the province of Kladusa, where Muslims had attempted to create an independent state among the multi-faceted chaos of war. The new lives of these immigrants revolved around the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, located in an old two-story Catholic school building on East Genesee Street, just a few blocks from the center of downtown Utica. The flow of Bosnians reached close to 1,000 a year at its peak in 1996 and 1997.

The process of absorbing the Bosnians involved--as in most cities--a combination of city, county and nonprofit agencies. As the recipient of the largest share of federal HHS money, Oneida County-- headquartered only a few blocks away--served as a conduit for funds and worked on economic development, connecting refugees with jobs. The Refugee Center served as the local headquarters for training and orientation, providing English-language classes and other programs.

Although Utica had developed a reputation as being a town with a dwindling supply of manufacturing jobs, the Bosnians somehow managed to find them. Many were hired by ConMed, a fast-growing medical device firm that had been founded by a local Italian-American family. Within a few years, Utica had become a magnet for voluntary Bosnian settlement, much as Orange County, California, became for Vietnamese in the 1980s.

The Bosnians were settled at first in apartments in the immediate Genesee Street neighborhood, then gradually migrated about 15 blocks east into the old Italian area of east Utica that revolved around Mohawk Street. There they found dozens of older one- and two-family homes that the Utica Urban Renewal Agency was desperately trying to sell--some for as little as $2,000. The newcomers found it hard to understand why these homes were so cheap. "A lot of them looked around the neighborhood," says researcher Reed Coughlan, "and asked, 'Was there a civil war here we didn't hear about?'"

Mohawk Street began to thrive again, and housing prices began to rise in the area for the first time in decades. With a 1.5 percent property tax on assessed value, Mayor Julian estimates that the typical Bosnian-owned house now provides the city with $750 a year in property taxes--compared with virtually nothing only a few years ago. The neighborhood transition was not without its problems; as in St. Louis and elsewhere, the Bosnians built smokehouses in their yards for smoked meat, and the odor disturbed the neighbors. But, as Mayor Julian says, this kind of neighborhood strife is nothing new in east Utica. "Sixty or seventy years ago," he points out, "somebody living next door to an Italian family doing the same thing would say, 'Can you smell that garbage!'"

PERSONAL POLITICS

As elsewhere, political integration in Utica has been more difficult than economic progress. In late 2002, Julian appointed Deana Smiljic-- who had arrived at the crest of the Bosnian wave in Utica in 1996--to a vacant seat on the Utica Common Council. Julian is a Democrat; Smiljic, like many political refugees, is a Republican. Then 31, Smiljic had become well-known among Bosnians because of her job with the workforce development office at Oneida County--where she had helped place other Bosnian refugees in local jobs.

For the most part, though, the Utica Bosnians, like the Cambodians in Lowell, have been slow to engage in local politics, or even to begin voting. When Smiljic tried to retain her at-large council seat in the next general election, she finished last in the Republican primary, losing out to candidates with names more familiar to most local voters--Parotta, Testa and Longeretta. "It's a small town, people know each other, they trust who they know," Smiljic says of Utica's traditional ethnic voters. For her fellow Bosnians, on the other hand, trusting the political process is hard. "After the kind of war we had, it's hard for people to trust anything again--especially after what our politicians did to our country."

Yet one of the lessons of the refugee experience in the United States is that civic involvement may not be the same as political involvement. Refugees may be preoccupied with politics back home, but they care about their new communities. "These are people who are incredibly interested in civic activity," insists Ann Morse, of the New American Community project. Many of the most important breakthroughs, she says, come in ordinary civic activities-- neighborhood groups, parent-teacher organizations and service clubs.

NEW CHALLENGE

Whatever the political frustrations, Utica and the Bosnians have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that they are good for each other. Whether things will go as smoothly between the city and all other refugee groups remains to be seen. Last November, the elders of Utica's Bantu refugee community issued a formal letter complaining that the Mohawk Valley Resource Center had not provided them with the medical interpreters they needed to use the services of the Oneida County Health Clinic. A tense meeting ensued between the Bantu leaders and the organization dedicated to helping them. In the end, the Bantus backed down, saying they didn't realize federal law required the county, not the refugee center, to provide the interpreters.

There are 150 Bantus in Utica now--refugees from another international crisis of the 1990s, this one in Somalia. Left unprotected during the Somali civil war of the early '90s, many wound up in refugee camps in Kenya before coming to the United States. In Utica, they are struggling to adjust.

The Bantu often bundle up, even in moderate spring and fall weather, and their work habits do not transfer well. Work is not geared to precise chronological time. "It's a very different work ethic," says Peter Vogelaar, staff director of the refugee center in Utica. "In the African context, you go to work when you get there and stay until the job is done." And the political context is different as well, of course. After the interpreter dispute in November, Vogelaar told a local reporter that it was brave of the Bantus to write a letter to the federal government because "they come from a place where the police kill you if you make trouble."

All of which raises the question of how communities that welcomed the Bosnians will handle the Bantus and other refugees from other parts of the world. Some refugee experts regard the Bosnians as "a blip"-- Europeans from a similar climate with similar work habits and cultural customs--and therefore believe the urban mini-renaissance in Utica is an aberration, unlikely to be replicated in many other places.

Yet it is clear that the refugees won't stop coming anytime soon. No matter what direction American foreign policy takes under President Bush and whoever succeeds him, millions of people from every continent will continue to be displaced. The resettlement system is so well established now that new groups--such as the Bantus--will continue to stream into cities that feel the moral obligation to welcome them and the economic pressure to grow in population.

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