*In the 1990s, Utica, New York was nearly destroyed by depopulation and arson. Real estate prices were so low that entire streets of this former manufacturing town were torched for insurance payouts. In her new book, CITY OF REFUGEES: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town (Beacon Press; May 2022), journalist Susan Hartman shows how an influx of refugees—one of the lightning-rod issues of contemporary politics—helped revive this small city 250 miles north of Manhattan.
Over the past four decades, Vietnamese, Bosnians, Somalis, Iraqis, Burmese and other groups escaping genocide and civil war moved to Utica to restart their lives. They have reinvigorated the town—and offer a real-life rebuttal to those who would shut our borders and demonize refugees seeking to access the American dream.
Hartman follows three of these newcomers over the course of eight years as they and their families adjust to new lives in America: going to school, building businesses, reckoning with their pasts—and transforming Utica in the process. There’s Sadia, a spirited Somali Bantu teen who rebels against her formidable mother; Ali, an Iraqi translator who has created a home with a divorced American woman but is still traumatized by the war in Iraq; and Mersiha, a hard-working and ebullient Bosnian opening a cafe in a long-empty retail space.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Hartman has been writing about immigrants and their communities for over two decades. Her cover stories and profiles have appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday. She has profiled a group of gifted double-Dutch jumpers on a troubled Brooklyn block; a young Guatemalan doctor beginning his residency at a public city hospital; and a soldier, Lieutenant Rafael Ramirez, trying to reconnect with his wife after his second deployment to Afghanistan. The author of two books of poetry, Hartman was educated at Kirkland College and received an MFA in writing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she now teaches. She has taught journalism at Yale, NYU, and Barnard College. She lives outside New York City with her husband; they have two grown children.
Q&A WITH SUSIE HARTMAN
You wrote about Utica’s refugee community, and Sadia in particular, for The New York Times in 2014. What made you decide to continue and expand on your reporting for eight more years?
My first week reporting, I met Sadia, Ali, and Mersiha. Each was at a kind of crossroads—and I was so curious to see what would happen next: Would Sadia’s mother arrange for her to get married—or would Sadia finish high school and go on to college? Would Ali put down roots in Utica or be pulled back to war-torn Iraq? And would Mersiha—a gifted baker who ran a home bakery—gamble everything and open her own café? My subjects were making choices: to keep traditions, adapt, or reject them. They were in the process of becoming new Americans.
The city was changing too. For decades, downtown was desolate. But when I started reporting, I’d see small changes: a restaurant opened in an abandoned storefront. A photo studio popped up on an empty block. And in recent years, there were enormous shifts: Loft apartments were being built. A hospital was going up.
In 2020, Oneida County, in which Utica is located, voted for Trump. Given that fact, it seems safe to say there’s at least some anti-refugee sentiment in the area. Did you see it?
Most Uticans really appreciate the refugees, especially the Bosnians, who came with educations and building skills. They renovated hundreds of abandoned homes and started small businesses. But some groups, like the Somali Bantus, came with very little. They’d been persecuted in Somalia—and had no access to schools or jobs. Uticans did not greet them with open arms. I’d sometimes hear muted criticism about how they handled their children or cleaned their homes. Race played into this: Bosnians are white, Somali Bantus are Black.
These days, the Somali Bantus, and other newcomers like the Burmese, have started to become integrated into the community. They’re buying homes; some of their kids are going to college. It’s hard to demonize somebody if they’re your neighbor. In Utica, families that go back generations and refugees often live side by side. Kids go to school together. Everybody goes to Walmart.
You spent countless hours over the course of eight years in the homes of Sadia, Ali, and Mersiha. How did you write objectively about people with whom you’ve spent so much time?
Sometimes it was a struggle—to not show how deeply I cared. But as a reporter, you set boundaries; I’ve been reporting in different communities for over 20 years. I was there to tell a story—and Sadia, Ali, and Mersiha accepted that.
I found that short stints worked best. I’d drive up to Utica for about a week. My subjects were busy—in the middle of things—yet graciously made time for me if they could. If they couldn’t see me, I didn’t press. I didn’t want them to feel imposed upon. Sometimes, I’d see one of my subjects a couple of times during a trip, sometimes, not for months.
What other cities have similarly flourishing refugee communities? What commonalities do they have with Utica?
Buffalo, Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, and Detroit have all developed strategies to attract refugees and immigrants. Like Utica, these Rust Belt cities needed an economic boost—and also hoped that by becoming more culturally diverse, they’d draw young professionals.
In recent years, thousands of Iraqis moved into Detroit’s suburbs, joining an established and vibrant Arab community. In 2016, before Trump’s ban took effect, they created about 2,000 jobs–many worked in the auto industry and in construction.
In Dayton, Ohio, refugees transformed the city’s skyline: Hundreds of Turkish families re-settled there, buying gutted houses, renovating them, and putting in porches and white picket fences. This was exactly what the city had hoped for: In 2011, the city commission had voted to make their community “immigrant friendly,” with programs to attract newcomers.
The news is bleak these days, and the US political culture is increasingly degraded. But this is a story that offers some measure of hope, spotlighting one of America’s highest ideals being implemented and lived. Did reporting this book shift your outlook on the future of America?
Reporting on this small, underdog city, I felt hopeful about other hollowed out cities across the country. Utica gave the refugees a second life—and the newcomers returned the favor. The city’s story of migration is an old one: We’ve somehow forgotten—with all the dark rhetoric about refugees–that immigrants have always built and maintained American cities.But Uticans remember their own family stories. Most residents are of Italian, German, or Polish descent. They know how difficult it was for their immigrant grandparents to be accepted—and how hard they worked to get established. “My grandfather was the first to sell lemon ices on the street,” a restaurant manager told me. Then his grandfather opened a salumeria. When Uticans look at the newcomers, many see their grandparents’ struggles.
Following Sadia, Ali, and Mersiha, I felt optimistic about who we can be as a nation: These newcomers are so hard-working and resilient. They arrive with hope.
“City of Refugees is a tender, intimate, and important book—a carefully reported rebuttal to the xenophobic narratives that define so much of modern American politics, and a gripping portrait of what three different refugees have offered the city of Utica through their labors of love.”—Sarah Stillman, staff writer, The New Yorker
“A gripping, fast-moving immersion into the lives of three bright new lights in a once fading town, City of Refugees is a meticulous and timely work of journalism.”—Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee
“This is an American tale that everyone should read—the story of three refugees who forged a new life in the Rust Belt. Hartman’s journalistic dedication is nothing short of astounding. She spent eight years following her subjects, and it shows. The storytelling is so intimate and the characters feel so deeply real that you will know them like neighbors. Sadia, who is a teenage girl when the book begins, is like the heroine of a great young adult novel. You will root for her on every page and, by the end, you will not be able to wall off your heart from her hopes and dreams.”—Jake Halpern, author of Welcome to the New World and winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“Susan Hartman’s City of Refugees is storytelling at its very best. Her detailed portrait of the ordinary lives of a few extraordinary people and their community gives us an utterly compelling glimpse into the heart and soul of the United States of America in the 21st century.” —Jenny McPhee, author and translator
“What a wonderful book! In this remarkably nuanced portrait of three refugees from three different trammeled regions, Susan Hartman manages a skillful end run around the topic’s usual politicized discourse. Instead, she concentrates on her subjects’ current and past experiences, including religious persecutions, wars, physical danger and their ambitions, confusions, joys and fears.” —Lis Harris, author of In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family
“Susan Hartman has written a vital book about the refugee experience in America. With spare and direct prose, she captures the daily joys and heartaches of three refugee families. This is a story of the tenacity of family bonds and the underappreciated contributions of refugees to the vitality of American life. I loved every single page.”—Jen Percy, author of Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier’s Return from War; National Magazine Award Winner