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The recent devastating floods in Pakistan and Hurricane Fiona hitting Puerto Rico are new chapters in the ongoing crisis of climate change which—along with war and legacies of colonization—continues to increase the number of displaced people, migrants, and refugees worldwide. Where do people resettle, and what happens when they get to a destination? In her new book, The City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town (Beacon Press, 2022), journalist and poet Susan Hartman documents Utica, New York, and the lives of refugees who resettled there.
Marisa S. Budlong [MB]: The City of Refugees is ultimately both a story about refugees—specifically the three that you follow in Utica—and a story about the city itself. I’m curious what initially drew you to Utica?
Susan Hartman [SH]: I had gotten a call from a stranger—Erol Balkan, who is an economics professor at Hamilton College—who knew I often write about immigrant communities. He said, “Did I know Utica had become a city of refugees”? And I had not. I went to school near Utica, to Kirkland College, and I was very interested in it. It was a down and out Upstate city. There were some beautiful buildings, but the storefronts were mostly filled with soup kitchens or social service organizations because manufacturing had left, starting in the sixties.
So, I was very interested. And a few days after he called me, I was in his car and he showed me around. It was a city that had been transformed by refugees.
MB: And why do you think this is an important story to tell now?
SH: Well, it’s a story I began telling almost a decade ago because that’s when the project started. I think it was important then, but nobody was talking about refugees in 2013. I was stunned that a city could be turned around and become revitalized through refugee resettlement. Then, in 2015, all of a sudden there were 65 million refugees on the run worldwide. So, then it became a more important story, and since then, unfortunately, the refugee situation has just snowballed. Now, we have new refugees who need to be placed in American cities, and so, it continues to be important.
MB : What did you find compelling about the three people you followed—Sadia, Mersiha, and Ali?
SH: Well, I met those three refugees in my first week of reporting. Each of them interested me in a different way, but what they all have in common is they’re very dynamic people. They’re all ambitious, and with a very strong sense of themselves. Sadia, at that point, was fifteen and very rebellious. She wanted to be a typical American teenager and was butting heads with her mom. Ali seemed to be under a kind of cloud. He’s an interpreter and a very reserved man. His brother had been pulled off a bus and killed by insurgents a few years before, and he was torn between the new life he was starting in Utica and his life back in Baghdad. I was just very moved by him, and wondered: What would be the outcome? Would he make a choice? Or would he continue to be pulled back and forth? And Mersiha kind of struck me as a classic entrepreneur, buzzing with ideas, very excited about the idea of starting a restaurant, extremely talented. But in her case, I wondered: Many people have an idea of starting a restaurant. Could she really pull this off?
These dramas kept pulling me back and I began telling this story.
MB: I was struck by how well we get to know each person throughout the book. Can you tell us more about your process, how you got to know them, and then how they felt about their lives being documented by you? Have they read the book?
SH: You know, I’ve done this for a long time: I follow groups of people and I don’t find it that hard to get access. I’m small. I have a quiet voice. There’s a process where you wander around, then you choose the people that you’re very interested in. You hope to gain their trust. You hope not to be intrusive—basically to disappear, so that they can be in their living room doing things, maybe even having an argument in front of you, and they’re not worried anymore. You’re just a pillow on the couch.
I’m sure each one has their own feeling about the book. What’s remarkable is that it was such a long project, and yet there was really no irritation among this cast of characters. And I think it was partly because I wasn’t there all the time. I wasn’t embedded with them. I did not want to be, because I feel that’s too intrusive and you become part of the story. So, I came up to Utica once a month, or sometimes just a few times a year. If there was something big going on, I would be there frequently, but I wanted to make sure that I was not impinging on anybody.
How did they feel about it? I think they were comfortable. For this sort of thing, give and take is important, but very rarely did they ever say: No, I can’t see you right now. They were very open with me, and I appreciated that. In terms of process, they didn’t get to see the book before publication. I’m not checking with them, and they’re not editing. This is my story. They understand that. And I probably see things differently than they do.
But they weren’t caught completely off-guard. If I’m writing an article for the New York Times, there may be an article where the person does not get to hear their quotes. But this is such an intimate story, so I wanted them not to be in a state of shock when the book came out. So, I read each one of them their section. They listened and would say things, and I felt that was a good thing.
MB: What kind of reaction did they have?
SH: Well, it’s funny. They were not listening the way a writer or an editor might; they were listening as someone who’s had these experiences. So, sometimes they were just lost in it: thinking about, and returning to, the experience itself.
MB: Part of the reason why I ask is because there are many beautiful, poetic quotes from each person, and you frame them well for the reader.
SH: Thank you. I also have a background as a poet, so I’m very interested in language. I love, more than anything, the quotes from my subjects. I still hear them in my head, sometimes years later. Once in a while, somebody would respond by saying: “That’s beautiful,” or “You make me sound so smart. ”But I’m not making them sound smart. I’m simply saying what they said, but now they get to hear how others might perceive them.
MB: There is much that we learn about these three throughout the book. What do you think they got out of sharing their stories?
SH: I think that these three people have a sense of themselves as being very special, and rightly so. They have a high opinion of themselves. And here is this person, me, who values what they have to say. There were days which might seem very ordinary to someone else, or unglamorous, but to a reporter, it was all interesting.
MB: At the end of the book, we leave these three people to face the pandemic. Are you still in contact with them? How are they doing two and a half years later?
SH: Well, mostly I’m still in contact, even though I felt: “Oh, I need to move on.” You know, I had been working on this book, for eight or nine years, but then I went back and did a cover story for the New York Times about how refugees in Utica feel about home. So, I got to interact with them again. Mersiha’s restaurant was a complete hit in Utica, which is wonderful because she worked so hard to create it. Then, a month after she opened it, there was the pandemic lockdown. That could be seen as a complete heartbreak, but she’s so resilient. She just turned that restaurant around, made it a takeout place, got another job. I mean, she’s amazing. And people love the restaurant, love the food.
Sadia is a young mom, a very good one, and a beautiful young woman. She’s a runner. She’s very into keeping fit. She’s also very interested in real estate right now. You know, her grandmother bought this old [property]—what had been a drug rehabilitation center—and renovated it. Her mother has bought homes. A lot of refugees in Utica find this is a way to get some income. So, that’s exciting for her. But, she’s young. Who knows what she might be doing five or ten years from now.
Ali, I’m surprised at. He has always felt torn between the home he was creating in Utica and his home in Baghdad, as well as the anti-terrorism work he was doing in Baghdad. I thought maybe he was going to make a choice, but like many refugees, he still feels pulled back and forth. And he’s still considering going back to Baghdad, taking another year-long contract, and doing anti-terrorism work as an interpreter for the allied forces.
MB: Another part of the story is the history of fires and arson in Utica. Can you share more about why you think that that was pivotal to the larger story?
SH: It’s so important because the whole landscape of Utica, like many rust belt cities, was devastated by the economic collapse. When manufacturing left, people had no jobs. Housing was often abandoned and sometimes torched for insurance, either by a homeowner or a landlord who might hire a poor resident to torch—let’s say, his eight properties.
Because of this, the fire department was in a state of crisis for decades. The city smelled like smoke. I describe how this one very beautiful old building, the Kanatenah, burned, and it was almost as a symbol for the city’s change. It had been an elegant, old building.
But when Bosnian refugees came in the early 1990s, they had building skills and middle-class backgrounds, and after a couple of years, they were ready to purchase these properties. They bought them for very little, and renovated hundreds of houses. They’re standing on roofs and they’re fixing porches and putting in flowers. So, right away the landscape changed. So, that brought back whole neighborhoods that had been taken over by drug dealers and packs of dogs.
Fire and population loss is a very important part of these Rustbelt stories. Buffalo lost half its population in the same period, and none of these cities have yet fully recovered the kind of population they once had. Utica had a hundred thousand, then it went down to sixty thousand. But a rson is also part of the transformation story because Utica was given a lot of state and federal money because it had had such a huge problem. And so, the city now has, you know, it has fires, but not the way it did.
MB: How did you go about telling personal histories as part of the larger history of Utica?
SH: I wanted to put in perspective what these refugees had gone through, what the countries they left had gone through, what the refugee camp experience was like. So, there is this part where I talk about when they were each on the run: it is very traumatic material and this had to be handled carefully. And so it also had to be within the context of how the city handles trauma. How do families handle trauma?
One thing that’s interesting: these three people did not mind talking about these experiences. Now, of course, they knew me very, very, very well at that point. But the Somali Bantu story, which is maybe the most traumatic, was told to me by a granddaughter, and the grandmother who told it to her has such a sense of humor about the whole thing, which I guess is a way to handle how devastating it was. And yet there’s this humor about it. The teller of the tale will focus on a bratty little girl who’s demanding pasta in her mom’s arms. I just found that fascinating, and it shows the resilience of these families.
MB: And that also goes into the political aspect of this book. Obviously, there are the underlying politics of the United States from the time that you start following them to the end of the book in 2020. How did you see American politics, and your own, evolve throughout that time period?
SH: In terms of how the people in the book felt about Trump and about politics, it was pretty stable throughout the time I knew them. Zahara, Sadia’s mom, is very devout and she just felt that God was in charge. She didn’t give too much credence to Trump, and she didn’t feel scared about him no matter what he said. She thought of him almost like a baby carrying on, and she would say to me, “If God wants me to go back to my country that’s when I will go back. If God wants me dead, I’m dead.” But Trump, she didn’t take him too seriously.
And again, all these subjects are used to authoritarian rulers. This is not new to them. Ali had Saddam Hussein. Now, Ali voted for Trump because he didn’t take his nationalistic jargon seriously. He was very hopeful that Trump’s economic policies might work, and he wanted to give them a shot. Mersiha was very disturbed by Trump; she voted for Hillary Clinton, and had been a Bernie Sanders supporter. Trump’s language, his nationalistic language, threw her back to what she had heard growing up, and made her feel threatened. She would hug and calm her students who felt bad about Trump and were worried.
So, you know, there are all these different ways of looking at it, and basically, I was just recording it, not thinking about my own judgments or feelings. I was just concentrating on understanding and putting it in a perspective so people will understand and not judge Ali for voting for Trump or his girlfriend for, you know, loving Hillary Clinton. I was just reporting.
Click here to read an excerpt from City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town by Susan Hartman (Beacon Press, 2022).
Susan Hartman is a journalist based in New York City, whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday.
Marisa S. Budlong is a Master’s student in public history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.