A haven for refugees

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Sadiya Omar’s journey to Rochester has been a long and arduous one. She fled a civil war in Somalia and spent a decade in a refugee camp in Kenya, before coming to Rochester in 2001. 

“No one wants to be a refugee,” says Omar, co-founder and vice president of Refugees Helping Refugees. “When you are made a refugee, you now have to live three lives. One was your life before, which you can’t return to. One is your life in the camp. And the last is your life in a new country. All of it is filled with confusion, distrust, and fear.”

Since her arrival in Rochester, Omar has helped launch RHR, a community-building organization whose services include English courses, employment training, health education, and everything in between. Omar was awarded a National Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2016. 

Sadiya Omar

Though Omar recalls the difficult process of making a new life while facing extreme isolation, she can still find humor in retelling a story of her early days in Rochester where taking a wrong bus caused her to attempt to walk to her job instead.

“It was my first winter in Rochester,” Omar says. “I really did not have the proper clothing for the weather.”

While Omar’s story is unique, it is also one that many can connect with, especially in Rochester, which, according to numbers from the Catholic Family Center, has among the highest rates of refugee resettlement in New York. Over the last five years, Rochester had the third-highest rate of resettlement, after Utica and Buffalo. In 2016, Rochester took in the most refugees of any location statewide with more than 1,000 resettlements in the area. But recent events have made it challenging for Rochester to hit that number again.

New challenges

Lisa Hoyt

Lisa Hoyt, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Family Center, believes Rochester has the capability to support that 2016 number in an ideal situation, but recent events hamstrung its ability to serve. A combination of a sluggish reversal of federal refugee policies enacted by the Trump administration as well as issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic means this year, the city will likely resettle fewer than 100 refugees, a historically low figure.

“We are rebuilding our systems. For a process that already takes years to complete for individuals, everything had to be rescheduled or delayed,” says Hoyt, whose organization is the only Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance program provider in Rochester. “It is like a spoke in the wheel was broken.”

Those low numbers could not only spell demographic and economic challenges for the area, but also a failure to deliver on an American promise Rochester has provided for decades.

A history of resettlement

The 1970s resettlement of Vietnamese asylum seekers following the civil war is often considered a milestone in Rochester’s consistently strong refugee support. The effort was helmed by many faith-based organizations, which laid the groundwork for systems that later would become part of U.S. government procedures.

Bruce McDaniel, a soldier in the Vietnam conflict, was involved in the first local effort and served as co-chairperson of the refugee resettlement program  at the Third Presbyterian Church in 1975.

“I came back from the Vietnam War with a lot of cynicism about the war and the way it was run. I had gone in idealistic and perhaps naively so, and it just seemed like everything about Vietnam was more complicated than it appeared,” McDaniel says in “First Days: Voices of the Vietnamese Refugee Experience,” a StoryCorps audio documentary project, “And to me, the refugee experience was similar to that. You think all these people, they want to come to America and be free, and we’ll welcome them, and they’ll be happy in America. And you discover, well, some of them didn’t really plan to come here. Some of them got caught up in this panic and ended up here. Now hopefully, in time, they can look back and say they’re glad they came.”

McDaniel sponsored a five-person group of Vietnamese refugees including Kim Nghiem, who was four years old at the time. Nghiem grew up in Rochester and now lives in Boston.

“There were many years that I wished I was not here, and didn’t understand why I was here,” says Nghiem in that documentary. “I feel grateful and pleased that I realize now, I was supposed to be here. I have such a deep and tremendous gratitude for being here, for all the folks that have helped, not only myself but my family, both in Vietnam, leaving Vietnam, and all who have cared for my family when I first came here.”

The resettlement effort that Nghiem was a part of continued for two decades and led to more than 1 million Vietnamese immigrants arriving in the United States. That figure is far above the current ceiling set by the country, which has been on a downward trend since the 1990s. 

Though President Joe Biden reversed Trump-era policies by ending the Muslim ban and raising the refugee cap to 62,500, the acceptance rate of 4,780 refugees is the lowest ever recorded and is not likely to increase anytime soon.

“We are prepared to receive more this August. But it won’t be a return to usual levels in 2021,” Hoyt says. “I don’t think we’ll see a return in 2022 either. Maybe 2023, but no sooner than that.”

The upstate promise

Jeremy Cooney

These numbers could be important to Monroe County’s future. The 56th District, for example, emcompasses areas with large refugee populations, including the Maplewood and Edgerton neighborhoods. Sen. Jeremy Cooney views refugees as an asset, helping to counteract a decline in the U.S.-born population.

“We know what the 2020 Census data is going to tell us,” Cooney says. “We’re going to see a loss in upstate population. Refugees are an opportunity to grow our city, grow our workforce and participate in our nation’s recovery. You think of that famous quote, ‘Give us your tired, your huddled masses.’ Well, it’s upstate who is following through and living that quote.”

In 2020, more than 80 percent of refugees statewide were resettled in Upstate New York

Utica, which has the highest resettlement numbers in New York, has buoyed its 40 percent loss of population with resettled refugees who have helped the city navigate economic hardship. Cooney believes critics of resettlement should reconsider those advantages for Rochester instead.

“I refuse to look at this as an either/or,” he says. “Families want to work—they do work—especially in positions that are unfilled. They pay taxes, send their children to school, beautify their neighborhoods. Isn’t opportunity the spirit of who we are? Is that not the story of America?”

According to a study by the New American Economy Research Fund, refugees accounted for $21 billion in taxes in 2015 and had over $1 billion in spending power in 18 states. Additionally, 77.1 percent of refugees were estimated to be working-age compared to 49.7 percent of the U.S.-born population.

Among refugees in Rochester, most are employed at entry- or low-level jobs as limited English proficiency and illiteracy often serve as a barrier to management positions.

“I would like to see which jobs they took when people say that ‘They’re taking our jobs!’,” Hoyt says.“They are saving our workforce by coming into these positions others don’t want to do.”

Charsely Bickett, executive director of Mary’s Place, a refugee outreach organization based in the Maplewood neighborhood, agrees.

“This neighborhood is where Irish and Italian families were living first, right? The discrimination hasn’t gone away, unfortunately. We always find a new ‘they,’” she says. “But the refugees I’ve met are the most resilient people I know. They don’t give up.”

By the numbers

While people from Italy remain an important part of Rochester, immigrants from other countries, particularly from Asia, now account for the highest total number of the foreign-born population, which includes both refugees and immigrants. In 2019, Asia was the continent of origin for nearly 38 percent of the foreign-born residents in Rochester. Europe ranked second, at 29 percent. Overall, there are roughly 75,000 foreign-born residents in the Rochester metro area, or about 7.3 percent of the total population.

Additionally, immigrants from nations that were previously underrepresented in Rochester are on the rise. African countries made up six out of the 20 fastest-growing countries of origin among the foreign-born here. Many of these people come from countries with large numbers of refugees.

In terms of refugee population alone, definite numbers are hard to come by. However, according to data from Catholic Family Center, the largest numbers of refugees arriving over the past seven years have been from South Central Asia, Africa and Western Asia—specifically, Afghanistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Bhutan, and Ethiopia.

Also on the list is Syria, which has 13.5 million displaced people, representing half of the country’s total population. More than 200 people born in Syria were estimated to live in Rochester in 2019.

“It’s an outrage what the Muslim ban did to the possiblity of Syrian resettlement,” Bickett says. “They were basically held hostage by the vetting process, which can take years. Then, after all that, they were told, ‘You are not welcome here.’

“The idea that refugees are these young, male terrorists is ridiculous,” Bickett added. “Refugees are the most vetted population in the world. And most of the people coming are women with their children.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, women and children made up over three-fourths (78 percent) of the total refugee population in 2019. Although an effort is made to place family members together, there are cases of families broken up by the process of resettlement.

As for the refugees themselves, they are typically not thinking of getting rich, coasting on welfare or competing for jobs with other Americans.

“It’s like winning the lottery,” Omar said. “Because you don’t get to choose where to go. Whoever is lucky enough to come with their families, it is a second chance at life.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon intern. He is pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at City University of New York.

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