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Stories from the Margins: Susan Hartman K’74 on City of Refugees


For 16-year-old Sadia Ambure, adjusting to life in America was anything but easy. After arriving in Utica from a Kenyan refugee camp, Sadia described the challenge of living through the harsh winters of Upstate New York. “I hate snow,” she said. “It hurts my skin. I’m like a snake—my face turns red, then ashy.”

Sadia is just one of thousands of refugees now populating the city of Utica. Her experiences are part of an extraordinary story: the transformation of Utica into a city of refugees.

Award-winning writer Susan Hartman K ’74 presented her lecture “Searching for Sadia” for an event hosted by “On the Move” in honor of Refugee Solidarity Month. For years, Hartman has followed the lives of three different refugees for her City of Refugees project—16-year old Sadia, an Iraqi translator, and a Bosnian with love for baking—as they learn to adapt to life in Utica.

From her photo essays for The New York Times, Hartman flips through pictures that give an intimate glimpse into these lives: Sadia looking out the window of her home, a man holding up a slaughtered goat, a hookah sitting in the living room.

Hartman’s journey into this field was far from straightforward. After studying poetry at Kirkland College and getting her M.F.A. at Columbia University, Hartman discovered a new passion for journalism after moving to a new block in Brooklyn.

 “I had just given birth to my first child, so I was inside for a long time,” she said. “I became so fascinated with newspapers, and I just started eating up and analyzing articles. I was hungry for a different kind of story—so I taught myself how to write features.”

Hartman became fascinated by a group of girls who played Double Dutch on the block outside her house. No matter what was going on in their lives—family issues, divorces, drive by shootings—the girls still showed up to play their game. She wrote a story on them for The New York Times, and then 20 years later did a follow up story about the young women these girls had become.

Coming to Utica for more feature stories, she had one question on her mind: “What traditions are kept by the refugees? How American do they become over a period of time?” 

Hartman was searching for a heroine—someone who could carry her stories. That’s where Sadia came into the picture. “I was drawn to Sadia almost immediately,” she said. “She had this fierce, rebellious personality and a great ambition.”

As much as Hartman bonded with her subjects, she warned her audience about the dangers of writing profiles on individuals. “There’s always a tension with these kind of projects. You’re in the middle of their lives even as they’re caught up on it and focused in it. I try my best to be objective and tell them: ‘I’m just telling a story.’ You’re not exactly telling their story—you’re telling a story. Whatever is your sense of their experience.

“That’s what journalism is—getting a close look at these individuals’ lives, as well as the way they shape and are shaped by the world around them,” she said.

 

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