At Hamilton, research into how the city of Utica and its flourishing refugee population affect one another has been going on for over a decade. Research into Utica’s refugee population by Hamilton faculty and students dates back to 2000 and includes many different projects. This summer religious studies major Shannon Boley ’17 and Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies Brent Plate are studying the religious life of refugees in Utica as part of Harvard’s prestigious Pluralism Project.
Overall, the “Mapping the Religious Landscape” project will compare religious communities in Utica and Manchester. This summer, Boley has been conducting interviews in Utica, developing an understanding of the religious life of Burmese refugees.
The project originated at Georgetown University as part of the Berkley Center’s World Faiths Development Dialogue project. Georgetown then began a collaboration with Harvard’s Pluralism Project, a long-term study of the impact of immigration on the religious landscape of the United States. Boley is looking specifically at Bhutanese and Burmese refugees in Utica and Manchester. The study aims to improve our understanding of how religious communities and traditions play a role in the ways immigrants adapt, build communities, and navigate American culture.
In particular, Boley is studying Karen refugees from Burma in Utica. The Karen people are a minority ethnic group who primarily come from the Karen State within Burma. Karen are primarily Christian, while the majority of Burmese people are Buddhists, and the Karen people faced harsh persecution from the Burmese government in the 1990s. Many Karen were forced to flee to refugee camps on the border of Thailand, where they lived in adverse conditions. Numerous Karen refugees now live in Utica, where they’re taking an active part in the city’s religious life.
Boley has been researching how the Karen refugees’ religious life intersects with their resettlement experience. She conducted in-depth interviews with eight people, including refugees and American-born religious community leaders. “People really open up to you. It was research, but it was also a look into these people’s lives…There are conversations I will never forget,” Boley said. She was impressed by the grace and humility of the Karen people, even when they were discussing painful memories. The refugees she spoke with work very hard, care immensely about their church, and appreciate Utica. “They love Utica,” Boley reported, “They say, ‘We are free here.’”
In her interviews, she saw how much religion can bring people together. In church communities that are largely Burmese, Boley saw that church can be a powerful way to hold onto memories and traditions. Religious life is also present in many everyday events. Birthdays, Mother’s Day, the New Year, and new houses are all celebrated with the church community. Boley summarized, “Religion is often a community builder. It binds people together.”
One example is the Tabernacle Baptist Church. Before the influx of Karen refugees, the church was struggling. With only about 100 members, it was thinking of selling its historic building. Then, as Karen refugees arrived in Utica, the church grew to over 1000 members. Today, over 80 percent of the church’s members are Karen. The church has its own language school and offers services in both English and Karen. In fact, the Baptist community grew so much that some Karen founded their own Baptist church nearby. Boley commented, “It’s beautiful how so many refugees bring a new life to the religious center.”
In her research, she found that this new life is the result of a spirit of collaboration and compassion from both native and new Utica residents. “It’s important to know,” she noted, “how some of the citizens in Utica have reached out, how they’re willing to change and adapt.” She says most people in Utica recognize how refugees are helping to breathe new life into the city and want to help them adjust to American life. One example she found is the Midtown Utica Community Center, an entirely volunteer-run organization that provides space and resources for dance groups, food programs, education and more. Boley found Utica natives going above and beyond the call of duty to support their neighbors. She reported, “They do things that aren’t in the job description: giving people rides to church, helping with taxes, taking someone to the doctor, and so on.”
It’s a great example of how different groups of people can, with compassion and understanding, come together to build communities that are more vibrant and prosperous than what we could create alone.