Second Chance City

A wave of refugees is bringing new life to a dying American town.
By Derek Burnett
From Reader's Digest
August 2007

Utica, New York

For the first time in his 22 years, Abdi Ibrahim is living in luxury.
But his new residence isn't a mansion with a million-dollar view. "I
have my own room," he says, laughing at his good fortune.
That's right: a rented room in the small upstate New York city of
Utica. A member of a persecuted minority group from Somalia, Ibrahim,
who at age seven found an older female cousin after she'd been shot by
marauders, spent most of his life in violent refugee camps in Kenya.
There he shared a mud-walled hut, scarce food and water with several
family members. But in 2005 he heard that he'd be joining dozens of
Somali Bantu refugees already settled in Utica. For decades, the city
has opened its doors to some of the world's neediest people. In
exchange, the newcomers bring the kind of energy and drive that most
cities would pay recruiters to attract.

Utica has long been a city of immigrants, with waves of Irish, Poles
and Italians working its factories in its heyday in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries. But refugees didn't enter the picture until the
late 1970s, after Utica had begun a plunge into economic meltdown. By
then, major employers had begun downsizing, and most would eventually
leave town. The city's population dwindled, and some streets were
lined with homes sitting empty. A bumper sticker seen around town read
"Would the last person to leave Utica please turn out the lights?"

Then, in 1978, a farmer's wife living just outside Utica sponsored a
family from Vietnam. Roberta Douglas's husband was a medic in the
Vietnam War, and the couple had been riveted by heartbreaking stories
of people fleeing the conflict. Douglas decided to open their home to
a family of boat people. Through a Catholic charity, she arranged for
a Vietnamese couple and their children to share her farmhouse until
she found permanent housing for them. Once they were established,
Douglas helped settle a family -- 12 people in all -- from Laos.

After that, things snowballed. If Douglas could assist this many
people, why not more? She teamed up with a resettlement agency the
State Department uses, wrote grants and, in 1981, incorporated.
"Everybody was willing to help -- the county manager, the churches,"
she says. There was a wing-and-a-prayer feel to the work; her group
might have only 36 hours to find housing for an incoming family, but
somehow they provided everything necessary. "It was like it was meant
to be," Douglas says.

Escaping the Nightmare of Violence
By 1985, her nonprofit, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees
(MVRCR), had processed some 2,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian,
Haitian and Polish émigrés. Utica, it turned out, was in many ways a
perfect place for refugees to start over. Because of the city's
history of immigration, residents were welcoming toward newcomers.
"And the low housing costs were a real advantage," says Douglas. "We
could put families into very nice housing for not much."

Though many of the skilled manufacturing jobs were gone, there was
still enough entry-level work for the immigrants to gain a fingerhold
on the American Dream. And without the labor pool provided by the new
workers, many of those smaller Utica companies might have disappeared
along with the larger corporations. Donald Chichester manages the
second shift at Keymark Corporation's Keyano division, an aluminum
extrusion facility outside the city. Fully half of the division's
workforce consists of refugees, he says, many from Somalia. "They're
the most motivated workers I've ever seen," he adds.

One of the earliest arrivals in Utica was a Cambodian named Synath
Buth. When Communist dictator Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime seized
power in 1975, it unleashed a nightmare of violence, forced labor and
starvation. Buth somehow made it through the next four years, though
36 of his relatives, including his father, did not. "The situation was
very tough," he remembers. "I would go farther every day trying to
find food for my family, and if you get caught by the Khmer, they can
kill you."

During those years, Buth married a woman named Saram; when they
decided to leave Cambodia in 1979, she was nine months pregnant with
their second child. Walking to Thailand, Buth says, "if you step on
the wrong place, you're blown up by the land mine. We'd see all the
dead bodies lying on the ground." In the jungle, his wife gave birth
to a daughter, Saramoroth.

Fenced for two years inside refugee camps in Thailand, the couple had
a third child. Then the UN told Buth that he and his family were to be
resettled in the United States. Through old movies and books, Buth had
already fallen in love with the country; he was ecstatic. Standing in
the airport near Utica on chilly November 11, 1981, wearing sandals
and carrying three small bags that held his family's earthly
belongings, he took a look around. "I said to myself and my wife, 'We
are born again.'"

The MVRCR placed them in a comfortable home, and Buth began an
intensive six-month English course. Neighbors came by, bringing food
and clothing. "I don't know how to thank them," Buth says.

For three years, he worked in a commercial laundry. But as one of the
earliest in a wave of Cambodian refugees, he realized he had a
valuable asset and offered his interpreting services to the small
staff of the MVRCR. Soon he became director of resettlement and for
nearly two decades threw himself into the work, honored to be able to
help others like himself.

No Free Ride
Buth bought a home in Utica and gave his children a comfortable,
middle-class American upbringing. Now retired, he also owns rental
properties in Baltimore. Saramoroth -- the daughter born in the jungle
-- last year married an American man in a traditional Cambodian
ceremony. "I'm still Asian," Buth says, "but this is my country now.
I'd do anything for it."

The biggest wave of refugees to come to Utica has been the nearly
4,500 Bosnians who escaped civil war in the Balkans in the early
1990s. They have most radically changed the look of the city.
"Somebody's garbage became our treasure," says Nezir Jasarevic, who
arrived in 1993 after being imprisoned and tortured by the Serbs. The
Bosnian refugees pooled their labor to make some astounding
transformations of hundreds of homes, some bought for a song from the
city's urban renewal agency. Says Utica mayor Timothy Julian, "They
used their skill in stucco to make places that were about to collapse
into houses that look like large stone castles."

They've made it seem easy. But Peter Vogelaar, MVRCR's executive
director, points out that the newcomers don't get a free ride. "Every
refugee that our center resettles is allotted $425," Vogelaar says.
"From that money, we give each person $50 cash. With what remains, we
have to get them an apartment, paying the first month's rent and
security deposit."

At MVRCR, refugees can get free English classes and, for up to five
years, job placement services. Beyond that, says Vogelaar, "they get
nothing more than any other low-income people in the community." In
fact, refugees begin their life in America in debt: They're required
to repay the government, interest-free, the price of their plane fare
from their home countries.

"We know very well nothing is given," says Jasarevic, sitting in his
remodeled two-story home with his ten-year-old son, Danny, who is web-
surfing on a laptop. "You have to make it with your hands." Jasarevic
was a student of architecture when he fled Bosnia. After arriving in
Utica, he took a menial job in a greenhouse, gradually trading up to
his current white-collar position with a health insurance nonprofit.
He and his wife, Azira, are raising their two children with all the
trappings of the American lifestyle. Jasarevic is forever grateful to
Utica for that. "When your whole world is turned upside down," he
says, "the opportunity to start a normal life is like one tiny dot of
light in a dark room."

Murithi Hassan Mudey carried one of his children on each shoulder and
led the rest by hand when he fled from Somalia to Kenya to escape
civil war in 1992. After more than a decade in refugee camps, he has
landed in Utica, where he lives with eight family members in a small
apartment unit across from a National Guard armory.

In an otherwise empty room, its walls and floors lined with colorful
African mats, Mudey sits in one of the family's two wooden chairs and
recounts his life journey. His 21-year-old daughter, Bisharo, settles
on the floor to interpret, a toddler playing in her lap. Despite the
sensational subject matter -- a dangerous evacuation, hyenas eating
people alive, babies lying on the road beside their dead mothers --
Mudey speaks dispassionately until talk turns to the future, when his
face brightens. "I want to buy a house," he says. "I want my kids to
go to college."

Starting a New Life
Utica is still a long way from its former prominence as one of New
York's most prosperous cities. But housing values increased 52 percent
between 2001 and 2006. In a fiscal analysis, Paul Hagstrom, a local
economics professor at Hamilton College, found that the initial costs
of refugee resettlement may be high, but after about 15 years, the
city's investment bears fruit. Which is to say, Utica has developed a
very effective long-term strategy for its economic survival.

And for those who value diversity, there are cultural payoffs as well.
About 12 percent of the city's population of 60,000 come from more
than 30 foreign countries, and 31 different languages are spoken in
the public schools. Utica now boasts a mosque, a Cambodian Buddhist
temple, a Russian Orthodox church, and a dizzying array of ethnic
restaurants and shops. Mayor Julian owns a laundry whose employees are
all Asians and Bosnians -- and whose clientele is even more diverse.
"The place will be jammed, and nobody's speaking English," Julian
says. "Different cultures coming together though they don't understand
each other's language: That's what makes a city."

Since 9/11, the United States has curtailed the influx of refugees
because of security concerns. Only 41,277 were resettled in the last
fiscal year, down from 99,974 in 1995. Still, refugees continue to
land in Utica: the Somali Bantus, the Karen people of Burma and, in
the spring of 2006, a group of Meskhetian Turks from Russia. Like some
11,000 others before them, they have a chance to start a new life.

If anyone is poised to seize that opportunity, it is Abdi Ibrahim, the
young Somali Bantu so thrilled to be living in his own room. Having
never encountered a flush toilet before coming to the United States,
he has made remarkable progress. Since arriving, Ibrahim has learned
English, gotten his driver's license, translated for the coach of a
local soccer team and held a succession of upwardly mobile jobs -- the
latest as an academic coach in Utica city schools. He is determined to
one day become a doctor and says he won't rest until it happens. "That
is my goal," he adds. "I am praying to God to help me." In a little-
known American city that's become, for many, a land of opportunity,
Ibrahim is likely to find the answer to those prayers.

Last Updated: 2007-07-16


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