On the bookshelf
City of Refugees: The story of three newcomers who breathed life into a dying American city
By Susan Hartman
Tag: 256 pages, $28
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In the mid-19th century, Utica, NY was home to more people than Detroit, Cleveland, and even Chicago. These towns soon overtook this isolated industrial city, but it continued to grow, reaching 100,000 in 1930 before stagnating for four decades. Then the inexorable decline that began through the Rust Belt set in and Utica grew smaller and poorer. But there’s a twist: After hitting a low of 60,000 in 2000, Utica has turned around and started to grow again, revitalizing its downtown area, thanks in large part to refugees.
Many of the people who helped foster this rebirth arrived in Utica after experiencing hell on Earth in their war-torn homelands, be it Vietnam, Burma, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Somalia or Iraq. In her new book, “City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life Into a Dying American Town,” Susan Hartman shines a light on the humanity of these outsiders while demonstrating the crucial role immigrants play in the economy. – and soul – of the nation.
“Most Americans haven’t had personal contact with refugees,” Hartman noted in a recent video interview. “They feel worried and see them as people who will weigh on the economy, with big families on public assistance. I hope this book dispels myths and puts a human face on refugees, showing the reality of their hard work.
Hartman began exploring Utica and its refugees in 2013, publishing an article on the subject the following year for The New York Times. During her reporting, she discovered the subjects of what would become her book: Sadia, a rebellious teenager in a Somali Bantu family of 12 headed by a single mother; Ali, an Iraqi who had worked for the United States during the war; and Merisha, who fled Bosnia in the 1990s.
“It was really an accidental book,” Hartman says. “These three people hooked me. I was fascinated by their stories and I had no idea what was going to happen. I was always waiting for the next trip.
Hartman continued to rewind for seven more years, learning the innermost details of three families while putting their challenges and accomplishments into the context of how Utica – with towns like Buffalo, NY; Dayton, Ohio; and Detroit — was rebounding with newcomers from a wide range of countries.
“I’m a miniaturist and I love the details of people’s lives,” she says. “I started with a story, not a program. I didn’t feel the need to make big statements. I felt he would be there if anyone wanted to find out.
Yet politics seeped into the book when Donald Trump became president pushing a xenophobic agenda – and not only continued to relentlessly attack immigrants, but also slashed the US refugee program.
“It might make the book more political, because you realize the town was booming and starting to prosper because of the refugees, but when the pipeline was cut, the town suffered,” Hartman says, noting that the president Biden reversed Trump’s attitudes and policies. (Biden, however, has received criticism from refugee advocates for his half-measures regarding people fleeing war in Ukraine: He first promised to take in 100,000 refugees, but then moved on to offer more. precarious condition of “humanitarian parole”.)
“They are excited in Utica to welcome more refugees,” Hartman says. “Companies, factories and the station need them, and there is also a hospital that is going up.”
Despite all the uncertainty of recent years, the political debate has rarely touched the refugees themselves. “They’re not as upset as you might think; they focus on work and survival,” Hartman says. “The refugees who were already here felt safe; they were American or in the process of becoming so and did not feel personally threatened. And the elderly did not receive news from American sources, but focused on news from their home countries.
It is also worth pointing out that despite the “replacement” conspiracy theories, the refugees were hardly politically monolithic. Ali voted for Trump in 2016, although he did not reveal his choice in the last election. He liked the Republican’s economic policy and chose to compartmentalize his more xenophobic rhetoric. “If you come from an authoritarian country, you’re used to Saddam Hussein,” says Hartman; by comparison, Trump never seemed particularly dangerous to Ali.
Hartman’s immersive eight-year reporting allows such nuances to shine through as families move on with their lives. Ali falls in love with an American girl named Heidi, but even as they begin to create a life together and save money to buy a house, he misses his homeland and is eager to help rebuild her. , returning to Iraq to work for the American again. government.
Sadia, meanwhile, gets kicked out of her mother’s house for posting an indie streak that seems too American for the family. Readers may be appalled by her mother’s callous behavior, but Sadia, despite her loneliness and hardship, manages to chart her own path. Hartman tries to put the family’s reaction into “a cultural context.”
“They saw Sadia as incredibly disrespectful, and her mother felt she would come back,” Hartman says, adding that she felt sympathy for the mother, whose 11 children led her to parenthood with a nurturing approach. “triage”.
Merisha and her husband work hard and raise a family, but her ambitions led her to start cooking and selling Bosnian food, inspiring the family to pitch in and put everything on the line for her to open a restaurant – which will launch in 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. “Opening a restaurant is such a gamble, and when I went there, Merisha was completely exhausted and couldn’t even think about the pandemic,” Hartman says.
The family adapted on the fly, with the children finding other jobs to help pay the bills, while everyone scrambled to set up a ‘take-out’ restaurant during the shutdown. “They didn’t cry,” Hartman says, adding that the restaurant survived and is thriving. The same goes for Ali and Sadia, who has a baby, a husband and a supportive in-laws, as well as plans for her future.
Regardless of their background, success is all about perspective, something these newcomers all have in abundance. “When just about anything happens,” says Hartman, “these refugees can say, ‘I’ve been through worse.’ Their resilience is enormous.