‘The Town that Loves Refugees’
By Maureen A. Nolan
As a self-starter who will, as needed, jump up to dance with teenagers or sit with an adult to study English, Hersheena Rajaram ’19 is a high-value volunteer for the Midtown Utica Community Center, which has no paid staff and survives on donations. The center, housed in a repurposed church, gives members of Utica’s large and diverse refugee community a place to learn, play, create and socialize. Rajaram happily lends a hand with any of that.
The economics major is pretty much in love with the center (better known as MUCC) and the people she’s met there. She learned of Utica’s wealth of refugees during an orientation trip her first week at college. She was already interested in refugees; now she’s interested and involved.
Utica, a 20-minute drive from campus, has gained a measure of fame as a city revived by refugees. For decades, Utica lost people in droves as its industries died. Its population dropped from more than 100,000 in 1960 to an estimated 61,100 in 2015. The refugees have mitigated the slide. Since 1981, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees has settled 15,000 people from around the world in Utica.
Recent U.S. census data show that 19 percent of Utica residents are foreign born and that a language other than English is spoken in 26 percent of its households. For its part, Utica has opened its arms to the new arrivals. In 2005, Refugees, the magazine of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, put Utica on the cover as “The Town That Loves Refugees,” a description that stuck.
For Hamilton faculty and students, proximity to Utica has provided opportunities for scholarship in fields as varied as art, economics, religious studies and anthropology. Students have learned to tutor, serve as volunteers and engage with people from circumstances and communities vastly different from their own.
Rajaram dove in. She’s tutored refugees, having taken a half-credit Hamilton course to ready her for the work. She takes part in a faculty-student, refugee-related research project. And she’s a regular volunteer at MUCC, spending Sunday mornings helping with the women’s study group.
From all that, Rajaram learned how to craft scientific survey questions and sharpened her communications skills. Yet at least as meaningful for her has been absorbing the life stories of the individuals she’s met. “These people are fighters, and they are so inspiring. That’s why I love to work with them. Every Sunday I get inspired,” she says.
Years out of college, Hamilton alumni say lessons learned from their student experiences with refugees shaped their futures.
“Everything had been so theoretical, and it was really great to get experience working with people, working in education, which is what I knew I wanted to do. It was one of the first times I opened up the door and peeked outside of Hamilton and saw what I could do out there,” says Anna Zahm ’13. She works for an education nonprofit that helps gain access to college for low-income students, students of color and students who would be the first in their family to attend college.
These people are fighters, and they are so inspiring. That’s why I love to work with them. Every Sunday I get inspired.
The keeper of the facts and history of Utica’s refugees is The Mohawk Valley Resource Center. The nonprofit agency in downtown Utica tracks numbers and countries of origin: Between 1979 and 1993, the peak resettlement year, 3,541 refugees came to Utica from all over the globe, especially from Vietnam, Cambodia and the former Soviet Union. In the 1990s, the largest refugee group came from Bosnia. In recent years most have come from Myanmar, often referred to as Burma.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the number of refugees has dropped, but year after year and from a wide range of countries, refugees have continued to find a home in Utica. And the Resource Center has continued to provide a range of services that support the new arrivals as they integrate into their new community and build independent lives.
As the world’s refugee issues made headlines, Utica caught the eye of the national media, especially during and since the 2016 presidential race, when Donald Trump made stricter rules on admitting refugees a cornerstone of his presidential campaign and early presidency. Journalists travel to Utica to interview newcomers and talk to the mayor, often visiting the Resource Center and MUCC. The New York Times, NPR’s Morning Edition, PBS NewsHour, the Toronto Star and The Hill, among others, have covered how Utica’s refugees have replenished the city.
If a Hamilton student or a professor has a question about refugee projects, Professor of Russian John Bartle is often the first person they turn to. His involvement with Utica’s refugees goes back as far as anyone’s at Hamilton. He joined the faculty in 1989 and soon began to volunteer in Utica. He remembers taking along a couple of Russian studies students to give them a chance to converse with native speakers. Bartle’s refugee-related work includes an ongoing documentary of Utica’s refugees through Hamilton’s Digital Humanities Initiative.
The primary conduit between Hamilton students and Utica’s refugees is the service-learning tutoring program Project SHINE, overseen by the Levitt Center. Bartle and Barbara Britt-Hysell, director of Hamilton’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, teach the training course that is required for students to tutor. The two have been part of Project SHINE since it launched in 2004. The College added the half-credit training course a couple of years later, and roughly 300 students have taken it. It’s offered twice a year, drawing 10 to 20 students each semester.
Project SHINE students tutor at a Utica charter high school and at a public adult education program. Two seniors who went through Project SHINE were fired up enough about tutoring to work with Britt-Hysell to create an independent project to tutor at a nail salon in Clinton. And, after a hiatus, students are poised to volunteer again at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center.
The hope is that Project SHINE benefits both refugees and Hamilton students, and that students gain more than a burnished résumé. “I think from the Levitt Center perspective, it’s great that this helps students with their job prospects, but I think we’re really also very concerned about creating empathy and helping them reflect on issues of justice and citizen responsibility. That’s really fundamental to our mission,” Levitt Center Associate Director Chris Willemsen says.
Tori Schacht Leventhal ’08, an English literature major, still has her service-learning journal from her Project SHINE days. Scrolling through it, she recalls how tutoring got her curious about predominately Muslim nations, and how she felt inspired, even called, to foster multicultural dialogue at any opportunity. She was inspired, too, to successfully seek
a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Indonesia. Leventhal now co-teaches English as a second language at a Brooklyn elementary school in a community of immigrants.
Working with local refugees has been a significant factor in Hamilton students receiving Fulbright awards, especially the teaching assistantships, says Ginny Dosch, Hamilton’s student fellowship coordinator.
Zahm, an anthropology and classical studies major, was another Project SHINE tutor who worked with immigrants and Karen refugees from Thailand. Until that experience, she never saw herself as someone who would get a Fulbright.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience working with diverse populations before that. When you’re thinking about applying for a Fulbright, you want to think that you’re culturally competent, and you want to have faith in your ability to work with a different population. And so doing that was how I was able to think, ‘Maybe I could do this, maybe I should talk to Ginny,’” Zahm remembers. She did, and got a Fulbright to teach in Thailand.
She also did group research related to refugees with Professor of Anthropology Chaise LaDousa, work that defined the last part of her studies at Hamilton and provided her a topic for her senior thesis.
In The Field
LaDousa did his first research related to Utica refugees in 2011, when he obtained a Levitt Center grant that allowed him and several students to examine a digital literacy training program used by adult students, including refugees. The next summer he received another Levitt grant for him and a team of students to study the GED, an alternative credential to a high-school diploma, and its value to adult students. The project also looked at English as a second language instruction related to citizenship.
Ana Baldrige ’12, an anthropology major, was part of that team and based her senior thesis on the summer work. “Frankly it was so good I asked her if she might want to develop it into an article together,” says LaDousa, “and it has just been published in Ethos [the journal of psychological anthropology].” Baldrige is now a student at Harvard Law.
LaDousa earlier published another article based on his Utica research in a leading journal, Signs and Society. “For me this has been like a second career, a second ethnographic interest,” he says.
Utica’s refugees also gave Professor of Economics Paul Hagstrom an opportunity for a career twist. With funding from Levitt, he studied the fiscal impact of refugee relocation to the Utica area and found that refugees are a net cost in the early years but in the long term yield benefits. The study came out in 2000, early in the history of Hamilton’s research related to Utica refugees.
Economists usually work with large data sets, Hagstrom says, and this was his first opportunity for local, small-scale research. Professor of Economics Erol Balkan, too, has done Utica refugee research.
“Really, in my view, the refugee resettlement in Utica is an incredible humanitarian effort,” Hagstrom says. “And it’s important because of what it does for people. As an economist I’m very interested in the topic because this is a group who doesn’t choose to come here. And so for social scientists, we call this a natural experiment.”
We’re going to try to get at the question — what is it that ties refugees to the Utica community?
The research is getting dated, says Hagstrom. Still, “it is the research that I get more comment about or more questions about than anything I’ve ever done,” he says. The New York Times quoted Hagstrom in a February story about refugees as “economic salve” for Upstate New York cities on the downslide, Utica included, and linked to his study.
Last summer, with more Levitt money, he and a team of students began working on a study to determine how long refugees remain in Utica after they’re settled there. The work is continuing this summer with a half-dozen Hamilton students, plus three from other colleges, funded by the New York 6 consortium. Students are knocking on doors to survey refugees.
“We’re going to try to get at the question — what is it that ties refugees to the Utica community?” Hagstrom explains. “It’s like all things in research; everybody thinks they know an answer to this question, but until you actually put the information together, you don’t really know what the answer is.”
Rajaram was one of the researchers on his team last summer, loved the work and is participating again this summer. She also has her own project to tend.
Last semester she and Audrey Nadler ’18 created a student club, On The Move, to strengthen campus ties to the refugee communities. Rajaram wants the relationship between the Hill and the refugees to be mutually beneficial. One of the club’s projects is the Sunday service trips to MUCC. This summer Rajaram intends to investigate the feasibility of opening chapters on other campuses.
By the time she graduates, she wants On The Move at Hamilton to be securely established and to have helped Utica’s refugees view Hamilton as an asset. “I really hope that we can create a two-way relationship between the College and the community because I think we all will learn a lot in the process,” she says.
Here is a moment — a lesson within a lesson — that has stuck with Justin Long ’16.
Back at Hamilton one summer, as part of a research project in Utica with professors Chaise LaDousa and John Bartle, Long tutored adults and teenagers, many of whom had recently arrived in the U.S. from refugee camps in Thailand.
Long’s research focused on the ways in which “America” as a political and social entity was constructed in classroom materials and discourse, and how students reproduced or altered these meanings in their own discourses on America.
In one lesson the teenagers were supposed to furnish a house or apartment. Some of them had lived their entire lives in refugee camps, and they had a hard time deciphering “cartoony” drawings of American appliances. “I remember sitting with three of them, trying to explain the concept of a blender, and realizing how culturally specific that lesson was. That was one moment when the project really came into focus for me,” Long says.
The students would draw pictures of the camps they’d come from, and Long thought about seeing these places for himself, maybe gaining more perspective on their lives before they settled in Utica. That’s one of the reasons he applied for a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in Thailand, where he now teaches English to students in grades seven through 12 at a school in Khon Kaen province.
When that ends, Long wants to work for at least a year in refugee resettlement casework. “My plan is a bit less clear after that, but I’m interested in going to graduate school for ethnic studies. Long-term — possibly aid work or academia,” he says.
As a Hamilton student, visited Utica to help second graders with reading and got to know something of the city’s demographics. Then she became part of a summer research team working in classrooms with refugees and immigrants who’d been settled in Utica. What had been abstract thinking became deeper and personal as she considered what the relocation of refugees and immigrants meant to a community, how a community evolves with the newcomers and what happens to vulnerable populations.
“It was just such a human way to be thinking about these things because we’re building relationships with these people as we’re tackling these issues on a more intellectual level. So for me it was just incredibly moving,” Parker Zielinski recalls. “I was amazed at the openness and warmth of these people who had really gone through a lot of trauma — and here are college students sort of fumbling through, trying to understand their experience and support them in any ways they could.”
Her interest in education deepened, and she knew she wanted to continue working in the field in more than a casual, volunteer way. Parker Zielinski sees a clear link between her experiences in Utica and what she’s gone on to do.
For a couple of years after graduation she worked at Literacy Volunteers of Massachusetts. The experience was rewarding, but she wanted to attain a comprehensive grounding in education best practices, so she enrolled in a master’s program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education focused on language and literacy. She finished the program in May.
“My personal goals are still very much in the nonprofit sector. I’m interested in family and community engagement, especially around literacy, because of where my experiences have taken me and what I’ve seen about vulnerable families and the kind of support that tends to be most successful and empowering.”
Utica, through a videographer’s lens
It was Christmas time and Adam Bedient ’04 was visiting his family in Clinton, where he grew up; his dad is Richard Bedient, a Hamilton math professor. As a conversation turned to nearby Utica and the refugees who have made it their home, Bedient thought the topic sounded like a subject for a pretty cool documentary.
He took the idea to his partner in film, Loch Phillipps ’82, who also liked what he heard. As things turned out, their connections and shared vision for a story added up to a feature-length documentary. They’ve just begun work on the project.
Bedient was a math major at Hamilton. Phillipps majored in philosophy and earned a master’s degree in filmmaking from the California Institute of the Arts. They both did photography as Hamilton students.
Phillipps heads Off Ramp Films, a video production company, and is a field producer and editor at Hock Films. Although years apart on College Hill, he and Bedient have been working together for nearly a decade. Bedient discovered Phillipps through a Hamilton connection, and he contacted the filmmaker, asking if they could meet. When they did, Phillipps happened to need some help on a project. Bedient stepped up, and the partnership stuck.
Typically Bedient shoots and Phillipps directs. “But we’re pretty fluid on that since it’s a small team, and we’re collaborative as far as the whole process. We both edit some, but we like to go out shooting the most,” Bedient says.
The two were attuned to lives and challenges of refugees before they learned about Utica, having done a substantial amount of work for the International Rescue Committee, an aid organization that supports refugees. It follows that they would be intrigued when they realized their shared alma mater was near a city noted for its influx of refugees.
Doing their preliminary research, Bedient and Phillipps got the sense that, in general, Uticans believe their city, whose population has plummeted over the decades, has benefited from the international newcomers. Two factors convinced Phillipps to go head with the movie. One was a 2000 study by Hamilton Professor of Economics Paul Hagstrom, in which he found that, over the long term, refugees are beneficial for the city. “Though this will be a smaller part of the doc, I really like the idea of having some statistical basis for the argument we want to make: that refugees have been good for Utica,” he says.
But Shelly Callahan, executive director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, was the clincher. The center that has helped thousands of refugees settle in Utica will be essential to the story, and Phillipps was instantly convinced Callahan would be a great focal point.
And one more Hamilton connection came into play — David Chanatry ’80, a journalist with extensive television experience and an associate professor of journalism at Utica College. He’s the local producer for the documentary. “He has a lot of connections and has done a few refugee stories for the radio and NPR,” Phillipps says. And it was Chanatry who introduced them to Callahan.
The team is still shaping the story it wants to tell, but the tentative plan is to follow two refugee families through their first year in Utica and to see how the city responds to them. Utica’s welcoming response to the newcomers has been eye-opening for Phillipps, and he wants to tell the stories of the locals who support the refugees, too.
They’ve already begun shooting and will continue to work on their other projects while raising money to fund the documentary, which could take two years or more to complete.
“The key thing right now is to develop the personal story that will make this really sing,” Phillipps says.