Utica refugees

Doe Doe Keh, a Burmese refugee who resettled in Utica and now attends Mohawk Valley Community College, picks up his food from Vietnamese refugee Savuong Son at Sunny's restaurant. The small business is one of dozens opened by refugees in the city in recent years.

UTICA -- More than anywhere else in New York, this city in the Mohawk Valley has embraced people fleeing strife-torn countries.

Providing safe harbor for those who've witnessed atrocities in their homelands - and who, in many cases, endured years in squalid refugee camps - doesn't just benefit the displaced.

For Utica, it is stabilizing working-class neighborhoods that were blighted by factory closings and emptied as the children of Italian, Irish and Polish immigrants moved to the suburbs.

But, now, Donald Trump's election as president is stoking fear among refugees and their advocates, given his anti-immigrant rhetoric and focus on curtailing immigration.

A wall proposed for the Mexican border was a rhetorical fixture of Trump's campaign, and he's called refugees a "Trojan horse" whose ranks are infiltrated by "terrorists."

"It is concerning to us," said Shelly Callahan, director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, which coordinates the resettlement of newcomers here.

Work continues

Callahan said those who deem refugees a public safety threat are misguided and unfamiliar with the experience in Utica.

"Unfortunately we know nothing is going to persuade the people who have an agenda of fear, intolerance and hate," she said in her office in an old brick building that once housed a Catholic school.

Regardless of the new direction of a Trump administration, James Franco, director of the Utica Safe Schools program and president of a volunteer board overseeing the refugee center, said it will continue to help new immigrants with housing, employment and other needs.

"The people here in Utica have welcomed our refugees, and our work is going to continue," he said. "We have had refugees change whole streets and neighborhoods for the better. These were run-down neighborhoods with criminal activity on the streets -- prostitution and narcotic sales.

"The refugees moved in and painted houses they didn't even own and helped to turn those neighborhoods around," he said.

Over the past three decades, Utica has rolled out the welcome mat to an estimated 16,000 refugees.

During the last fiscal year alone, the United States admitted 85,000 political refugees. Most were from a half-dozen countries, according to Pew Research Center -- the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Burma, Iraq, Somalia and Bhutan.

Labor pool

In Utica, foreign-born people and their children account for about a quarter of the city's population of 62,000, earning it the United Nations' distinction as "the town that loves refugees."

Refugees represent a new pool of immigrant labor, which Callahan said has been a major asset for regional businesses looking to expand or simply trying to fill jobs shunned by workers already living here.

In some cases, businesses that hire refugees are targeted.

One upstate employer that has taken on some refugees living in Utica, the Chobani yogurt plant in Chenango County, has been sharply criticized in recent weeks by a right-wing, pro-Trump website, Breitbart, for hiring Muslim immigrants.

Those reports have unleashed racist rants against Chobani and its founder, Turkish immigrant Hamdi Ulukaya.

Such attacks concern advocates for refugees - a group that, Callahan notes, is already subjected to intense scrutiny by the government.

Agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, State Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement spend 18 months to two years examining the background of each person allowed into the United States.

"Refugees are the most heavily vetted immigrants to enter this country -- by far," she said.

It's common for some members of a Burmese ethnic group, the Karen, to spend decades in Thai refugee camps before coming here, she noted.

City's lifeline

It Utica, the first wave of refugees decades ago was mainly populated by people escaping war in the Balkans -- primarily Bosnians -- along with some who'd fled Vietnam and Cambodia.

More recently, the city's refugee center has seen hundreds of people from Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Sudan.

Some of the most recent have come from Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

Savuoung Son, who is Vietnamese, was among those who moved to the city a decade ago. He said he came here because the cost of living was lower than in Rhode Island, where he'd lived and worked for several years.

As he waited on customers and took telephone orders in his restaurant, Sunny's, several blocks from the refugee center, he noted that things weren't "so good" when he arrived in Utica.

"Now they are good," he said. "The streets, they are clean now."

Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, one of the city's native sons, said those stories are part of what pulled the city from a downward spiral.

In the last decades of the 20th century, Utica shed more than 20,000 jobs with the closings of two nearby General Electric plants, Griffiss Air Force Base in nearby Rome and a Lockheed Martin plant.

Its population of 100,410 people in 1910 had shriveled to 60,000 by 2010.

"Without them, we would have a city with less population, less cultural diversity and not as robust in terms of small business growth as it has been over the past couple of decades," Brindisi said in an interview.

He said he understands some people's concerns that refugees pose a security threat.

"I feel that any group coming into the country should be vetted," he said. "But I would encourage other groups around the country that have concerns to look at the last 30 years here in Utica, and you will see a city that has welcomed and benefited from having refugees. The refugees here have revitalized parts of the city that had been abandoned for many years."

Ongoing controversy

Controversy over the admission of refugees to the United States is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

Specifics of Trump's immigration policy remain to be clarified, and others appear to be preparing for a struggle.

Last month, Pope Francis named 17 new cardinals including Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin, who was known for continuing to welcome Syrian refugees to Indiana even after Gov. Mike Pence tried to keep the state from participating in the government-sponsored resettlement.

Pence is Trump's vice president. On Thursday, the Vatican announced that Tobin will be the new archbishop of Newark.

In Utica, newcomers do not isolate themselves. Rather, Callahan said, they mix with people born in this country and those who've arrived from other lands.

The city has one public high school, and its students forge friendships with people from many different backgrounds.

"It is hard to identify folks here as 'the other people' because your kids are playing soccer together and you see them when you are shopping for groceries," she said. "I think that has contributed to the level of tolerance that Utica has."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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