The people who revived a Rust Belt city

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This United Nations Day, the UN Association of Rochester is trying to bring special attention to the situation of refugees in America with a film event at the Little Theater.

“We want to show that we support refugees and remind people that they’re not ‘those other people.’ Those other people are you,” says Margaret Corbin, a board member with UNAR, which was formed in 1945 to advance the goals of the United Nations Charter, such as human rights and global peace. “In all our histories, no matter where you’re from, your family had to rely on someone else when disaster struck.”

Today, the UNAR will host two showings of “Utica: The Last Refuge,” a 2021 documentary about refugees in the city as seen through the eyes of the Azeins, a newly arrived Sudanese family, already resettled refugees and Uticans. In addition to the screenings, there will be a panel discussion with producers of the film as well as members and advocates of the Rochester refugee community.

Filming for the movie began preemptively in 2017 before any major international humanitarian decisions were made by the newly elected President Donald Trump. During Trump’s administration, a ceiling was set and refugees admitted dropped to record lows. Lacking financial and philosophical support, refugee resettlement agencies questioned whether they were able to continue their own work. 

Although President Joe Biden has raised the ceiling to its highest level since 1993, accepted refugees have lagged far behind. Corbin says this dramatic drop and its echoing effects were among the reasons the UNAR chose to highlight this issue.

“The progress we made with helping people who have lost everything, who are fleeing for their lives, it came to a screeching halt when a certain someone was voted into the White House,” says Corbin. “But the need still existed with our communities.”

Trends suggest that Rochester’s refugee population is leaving for different areas, but the city still is among the primary resettlers in New York, achieving the highest levels in 2016 of over 1,000 refugees. However, Utica, the subject of the documentary film, was a town truly transformed by its acceptance of every refugee wave.

“There’s a humanitarian argument to be had here, of course. These are people who have gone through hell and spent years in a camp before being able to move. But it’s also a pragmatic argument too. These aren’t people who are looking for someone to take care of them. They’re here to take care of themselves,” says David Chantary, a professor of journalism at Utica College and producer of the film.

“This isn’t a story about how Utica helped these people, it’s a story about how these people recovered the city,” he adds.

Similar to Rochester, Utica’s first involvement with refugees came in the 1980s with members of the clergy aiding families who fled conflict in Southeast Asia, then exploded with accepting Bosnian refugees from the Balkans in the 1990s. The depopulation of the Rust Belt city, which had lost a third of its population in 30 years, meant housing was available for the incoming families. There were also job positions that required low English proficiency, many at greenhouses.

From there, the refugee population flourished, buying properties to fix up and rent back to other arrivals. Chantary mentions a stucco housing style that is an easy indicator of a rehab by a Bosnian refugee. An unused building across from city hall was bought by the Bosinian Islamic Association and converted into a large mosque, which is now a bustling community center.

“Without them, one study found the city would have fallen below 50,000 people, a very important number for state and federal categorization for funding and things like that. Refugees turned this city around,” says Chantary, who agrees that cutbacks to resettlement agencies have sliced into that important pipeline for refugees.

He believes the film speaks both to the influence refugees have had on Utica, but also to the resiliency of the individuals themselves, seen through the intimacy of everyday life and community building. Chantary hopes it can convince people to continue to help, especially with ongoing crises in Afghanistan and the Ukraine.

“International interest has suffered during this time. People should know, time is just as valuable as money when it comes to how they can help,” agrees Corbin.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

2 thoughts on “The people who revived a Rust Belt city

  1. We are a nation of LEGAL immigrants who together built the most spectacular nation in history. ILLEGAL immigrants throughout world history have been a major cause of national decline; that is why every country in the world has borders and very clear laws about legal immigration. The fact that the Biden administration has chosen to break our US immigration law and egregiously to actually facilitate illegal immigration does not make these people legal immigrants. They are intentional lawbreakers and many are dangerous, especially the “gottaways”, which estimates place at over 1 million.
    Those present in our community illegally should be isolated and kept under surveillance until an administration willing to follow the laws that protect us all is elected and is able to reinstate the rule of law and so to deport dangerous people willing to break our immigration laws to be here.

    • Are the refugees in the movie illegal immigrants or is it some half cocked speculation that all immigrants are here illegally as has been propagandized by the radical right? Why didn’t Trump solve this issue his first two years in office when he had a republican congress instead of ramming through a $2.1 trillion tax break for the corporations and the wealthy?

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