The “three newcomers” in Susan Hartman’s intimate, powerful new book are Sadia, an outspoken, effervescent high-school student from Somalia; Mersiha, a talented, ambitious chef from Bosnia; and Ali, a reserved, devout translator from Iraq. They have made their arduous way to the “dying American town” of Utica, New York, which became “a refugee magnet by accident” in the 1970s, when a local resident partnered with Catholic Charities in nearby Syracuse to resettle hundreds of Amerasians from Vietnam.
First and foremost, City of Refugees reminds us how important small and mid-size cities are to the American fabric and future. When it comes to twenty-first-century industry and assimilation, L.A. and New York—nations unto themselves, really—have their role to play. Places like Utica—Dayton, Buffalo, Youngstown—have a different, though no less essential, job to do.
Hartman’s portraits are extraordinary, at times poignant, at other times unsettling or shocking, since her subjects carry with them immense traumas. At fourteen, Sadia’s mother was “fleeing civil war, running toward the Kenyan border…two months pregnant.” Mersiha’s husband, meanwhile, felt it was merely “a question of time before (I was) killed,” following the 1995 slaughter of thousands at Srebrenica. And Ali’s translation work for the U.S. military once earned him a menacing note tucked into an envelope containing “two AK-47 slim-tipped bullets.”
These refugees bear painful baggage, but they also bring the kind of energy and ingenuity earlier immigrants drew upon to make Utica a vibrant industrial town in the 1950s, when the population rose to around 100,000. But then industries began to downsize or collapse. “We started to hear about dads being laid off,” recalls prominent public-opinion pollster John Zogby, the Utica-born son of a Lebanese immigrant. By the 2000s, the city’s population had dwindled to 60,000, with immigrant “newcomers mak[ing] up about a quarter of Utica’s population,” according to Hartman.
What can Utica—and the “life” that Mersiha, Sadia, and Ali breathe into it—teach us in our jittery, post-industrial age? City of Refugees is more a human portrait than a policy paper. Still, there are clear indications that local governments can and should cultivate immigrant contributions—an eminently sensible suggestion, though one complicated by America’s acute case of immigration schizophrenia. On the one hand, we lionize the hardworking immigrants trying to achieve the American Dream; on the other, they’re reviled as a drain on public resources.
The sight of Sadia and nearly twenty Somali Bantu relatives living under one publicly-subsidized roof, or newly-arrived Muslims converting an old Methodist church into a “soaring mosque” might personify the American Dream for some. But it scares the star-spangled pants off others. “Every refugee,” Hartman writes, “accesses public assistance,” and is also given a furnished apartment, thanks to federal and state money overseen by a local nonprofit. This is easy fodder for xenophobes, and we don’t hear much about such challenges in City of Refugees.