Reviewed by Deirdre Sinnott
Behind each awful headline that pops up on social media, in newspapers, and on TV of people being forced to flee their native country there are real consequences for real people. All the individuals we see on our screens had lives and dreams before events over which they had no control, took it all away.
Susan Hartman’s book, City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life Into a Dying American Town (Beacon Press, May 10, 2022), digs deep into the stories of those who have been made refugees by conflict, and given a chance to rebuild their lives in Utica, N.Y.
The subjects of Hartman’s book, a mix of nationalities and ages, find a city with low annual income, but also a low cost of living. Readers see not only the particular people, but also the changes that their presence brings to the city. The challenges of integration provide a road map for revitalization.
Refugees bring with them not just the pain of their exile, but a wide range of professional experiences, cultures, customs, foods, music, and outlooks. City of Refugees covers a remarkable eight years as Hartman keeps returning to interview her subjects as their lives change.
Mersiha Omeragic arrived from war-torn Bosnia around the year 2000, a woman on the verge of adulthood. Now she cares for her four children, teaches English at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, and runs a catering business from her home. She and her husband Hajrudin opened a café/bakery in December 2019. They put all of their savings into the effort and during the pandemic, it became an import resource for the Eastern European and Bosnian community.
Sadia, a young woman whose family followed their grandmother to Rutger Street, had fled from Somalia to a refugee camp in Kenya. They arrived in the United States in 2004. The author met her in 2013, and followed her painful process of challenging her elders when she found that the old ways no longer fit her circumstances or ambitions.
Ali Sarhan had been an English interpreter in Iraq’s capital Baghdad. He had a good job with ABC News but had to leave behind his aging mother and two sisters in 2018 when he received threats. They stayed a while in Syria, as did many Iraqis from both the first and second Gulf Wars, until the situation there became unstable. His mother commented to Hartman, “Before coming to Utica, it was very scary. We couldn’t go out.” Ali’s struggle with the relocation affects all aspects of his new life. Hartman shows how these adjustments challenge even the strongest of familial bonds.
Each individual’s narrative reveals that people are not simply defined by the hardest period of their lives, but also by their hopes and ability to adapt and strive in their new homes. The damage of displacement will continue to color their future, but it is not them. Readers get to know the people and their personalities before the author delves into the circumstance which led them to become refugees.
The fourth subject in the book is the city of Utica. Once called by TV talk show host Dick Cavett “the jewel in the navel of New York,” it is the largest city in Oneida County. Originally the territory was the home of the Oneida, Mohawk, and Onondaga Indian Nations, members of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy.
Utica was established in 1758, south of the Mohawk River. Because of the availability of many types of transportation, industry developed and Utica’s population grew, drawing immigrants as they relocated. Because of the availability of many types of transportation, industry developed and Utica’s population grew, drawing immigrants from more than a dozen countries and regions as they relocated. The influx often followed upheaval and war in other parts of the world. For example, following the Vietnam War, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, came to the city, joining the mix of those called Uticans.
But after the Second World War, when factories closed, the population began to shrink. That hollowing out of Utica’s tax base and human dynamism had a dramatic effect on the city. Hartman vividly describes Utica’s undoing, with dramatic scenes of arsonists haunting the streets, the fires that raged through neighborhoods and the loss of the iconic Kanatenah apartment building, a massive eight-story brownstone which burned in 1994. Houses were destroyed with few consequences for those who set them or for those who paid for the gasoline to be spread and the match to be lit.
Hartman documents the structures created to stop the nightly conflagrations. “Some blocks looked less desperate as the city began to remove abandoned buildings. In 2000, when the Strike Force disbanded, the Bosnians were already standing on ladders and roofs, rebuilding. The refugees—arriving from over 35 different countries—helped keep fire at bay by bringing blocks back to life. But they also presented challenges: The fire department was unprepared for the newcomers, some of whom had never seen a stove, used indoor plumbing, or slept on a mattress.”
It makes perfect sense that many of the more recent refugees end up settling in the East Utica area known as Cornhill. It is a residential neighborhood with single and double family houses. Cornhill has provided homes for waves of different nationalities. Local historian Frank Tomaino reports that in 1865 the Welsh lived there, followed by the Irish in 1875. Into the twentieth century, the Jewish community had a significant presence there, eventually joined by Black citizens who came to Utica during the decades-long Great Migration. They helped fill the factories and cities of the north. But equality is a long time coming.
In the 1950s, the African American population found that due to discrimination they could not rent or buy houses in the white neighborhoods. They populated Cornhill and opened their own businesses and went to church within Black congregations. Hartman examines some of the justified resentments of the Black community, which is still struggling to overcome discrimination and racism.
“What hardworking Black people have noticed in Utica is that historically they didn’t get the niceties and access,” said Patrick Johnson, who serves as a liaison between law enforcement and the community. His family was one of the first Black families to move into Cornhill, a middle-class immigrant neighborhood, before the city’s decline. It is now predominately working class and poor. Black people and refugees are neighbors. Many African Americans feel the refugees have been given opportunities—and support—not available to them.”
The refugees arrive with a different worldview: “They start fresh. They view America as opportunity. They have more hope,” said Freddie Hamilton, an activist and former councilwoman, who moved to Cornhill from Brooklyn about 10 years ago.
That fresh start has transformed Utica. Prepare to have your assumptions shaken. City of Refugees offers a real accounting of the people now living in the city. The challenges are many. The refugees must learn to adapt to new territory, new language, new customs and laws, as well as figuring out how to earn an income. The social structures in Utica, like the public school system, was faced with students who did not speak English, and strained budgets. This ongoing adjustment has caused social isolation for some students.
The book is filled with poignant and personal stories about people overcoming hardships and the devastation of war. It is the stuff of human drama: the joys, disappointments, and hopes of people who needed help to rebuild. In addition, it encapsulates American exceptionalism in the creation of a nation with the blood of those who were born elsewhere, but contributed their energies, efforts and experiences to create something new.
As of this writing it has been estimated by the United Nations that 4.2 million people have left Ukraine as bombs dropped and Russian tanks rolled down previously busy streets. As many as 6.5 million have been internally displaced. President Biden has announced that up to 100,000 people would be accepted into the United States, giving priority to those who have family already inside the country. Hopefully some of those people will find a new place to lay down roots in Utica.
Deirdre Sinnott, born and educated in Utica, N.Y., is an independent scholar, filmmaker, social change activist, and author of the novel The Third Mrs. Galway. Sinnott’s writing appears in numerous places including The New York Almanac, the Utica Observer Dispatch, ForeWord Magazine, and the Catskill Review of Books. Her Hippocampus Magazine essay “Right-sized Rats” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and anthologized in Selected Memories: Five Years of Hippocampus Magazine. Currently a historical consultant/researcher for the Ft. Stanwix Underground Railroad History Project, Sinnott has directed two award-winning documentaries: 23 Reasons Why 23 Years is Enough: Clemency for Pascual Carpenter and Multiple Injuries.