Out of Utica’s some 60,000 residents, as many as a quarter of them could be refugees, Shelly Callahan, the executive director for the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR), revealed in a recent New York Times article. The Center is a not-for-profit organization that has helped resettle thousands of immigrants from over 30 countries since its founding in 1979. Today, Utica is truly a mix of cultures, reflected in the more than 40 languages spoken by the 2,700 students at Utica’s Proctor High School.
This summer, a group of Hamilton researchers has observed firsthand the struggles and obstacles faced by the refugee community, both of recent arrivals and long-time residents. The team was supervised by Associate Professor of Anthropology Chaise LaDousa and Associate Professor of Russian John Bartle, and was supported by the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.
LaDousa and Bartle worked with a team of six student researchers: Emily Banzer ’15, Christopher Rogers ’15, Edie Wilson ’15, Justin Long ’16, ; Gabe Rivas ’16, and Jeremy Cottle ’17.
Bartle, who has lived in Utica for 22 years, explained that refugees differ from immigrants in that they are fleeing danger, whether persecution, war, or something else, and are often forced to spend time, sometimes years, in crowded refugee camps while they are formally applying for asylum in another country.
The researchers worked with refugees at two facilities in Utica, the MVRCR and the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). At both spaces, the group sought to come to a better understanding of how refugees in Utica develop a new identity while simultaneously attempting to learn English and navigate American culture.
“The two institutions in which we worked devote enormous energies (with few resources) in an effort to enable refugees to acquire housing, speak English, and enter the labor market,” explained LaDousa. MVRCR is a nationally recognized leader in refugee services, “focused on enabling individuals and communities to promote and sustain their cultural identity, and increasing access to medical assistance and culturally and linguistically appropriate services to Limited English Proficiency (LEP) individuals within the community,” as its website details.
At both facilities, the team tutors, observes, and interviews the students and staff. They aim to gain an overall sense of the “refugee experience” for both new arrivals in Utica and those who have been here for years.
Two days a week the group worked with the Newcomers, recently arrived individuals between 17- and 20-years-old. Given the close ages of the newcomers and student researchers, the two groups bonded quickly, noted Bartle.
Describing the progression through the education courses, LaDousa explained, “The Newcomers is a program founded by the MVRCR and partly extended to BOCES, some of the Newcomers then join ESL classes at BOCES, and eventually move to the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC, formerly the GED) preparation courses when deemed ready by their instructors.”
Many of the refugees have never left the city since arriving, so the Hamilton team has taken the newcomers on field trips to Fort Stanwix, the Erie Canal, and Hamilton College. While on campus, the Newcomers enjoyed a campus tour from student tour guide Cottle, a brief academic presentation by the Silas D. Childs Professor of Biology David Gapp, and the weekly community lunch sponsored by Staff Assembly Council.
The other two days, the group worked at BOCES with the ESL adults, working on cultural orientation and language skills. The classes also tutor the students in everyday activities like how to read and fill out forms, and order items from catalogues and online distributors.
The project had two main components, each headed by one of the professors. LaDousa focused on the educational experience of the refugees, similar to the topic he covered in his latest book, Hindi is Our Ground, English is Our Sky, an ethnographic study of Hindi- and English-medium schools in Varanasi, India.
Complexly interwoven with this American education are questions of identity, a focus of Bartle’s work this summer. The Refugee Project, a Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi) co-directed by Bartle, Janet Simons of the DHi, and David Chanatry of Utica College, released Genesee Lights in 2013, a film about newly arrived refugees in Utica. Bartle hopes to extend this project with data and material gathered this summer.
Although they looked for patterns and trends through their ethnographic research, LaDousa said that the team has discovered “that there is no one story to tell about refugees, anywhere.”
Citing the rich music, food and architecture of Utica, Bartle said he would like to see more of a relationship between the College and the city: “The type of diversity we have at Hamilton is truthfully not so diverse, yet we have this amazing linguistic and cultural melting pot 10 miles away.”
In fulfillment of their Levitt Research Grants, each student will complete a 25-page paper that analyzes a component of the group’s work. They will use interview transcriptions, photographs, classroom materials such as worksheets, textbooks and posters, as well as their fieldnotes, to address questions of identity, literacy, fluency, and American culture.
For example, Cottle, who will be focusing on classroom materials, said that he will is intrigued by what these materials assume about the students, about what the students already know, what sense of America, or “typical Americans,” the materials impart, and what they provide as “correct” English.
“Students have to acquire a kindergarten through 12th grade education in just a few years,” stated Banser. To complicate things further, “the teacher has to customize the curriculum based upon the needs and knowledge of each student, but also has to prepare them to pass the TASC,” she added.
Whether receiving ESL tutoring, taking general education courses, or being helped find a job or house, numerous organizations provide critical resources for refugees. Although the transition is lengthy and difficult, refugees eventually feel at home in Utica, finding comfort in ethnic neighborhoods, traditional cuisine, and religious institutions.
Emily Banzer is a graduate of Brockport High School (N.Y.)
Jeremy Cottle graduated from Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsborough (Mass.).
Justin Long graduated from the Park School of Baltimore.
Gabe Rivas graduated from Design & Architecture Senior High (Fla.)
Christopher Rogers is graduated from City on a Hill Charter Public School in Roxbury (Mass.)
Edie Wilson is a graduate of Okemos High School (Mich.)