© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Utica, N.Y., Which Welcomes Refugees, Monitors Trump's Muslim Comments


This country is really just beginning a debate over refugees. President-elect Donald Trump described them as a security threat. And he was tapping into real anxiety, which we found interviewing some voters around the country. But a community that welcomes refugees tells a more complicated story, to say the least. Utica in upstate New York has made refugee resettlement a part of its culture and economy for decades. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann begins this report in a carload of refugees.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: I'm riding through this Rust Belt city along the old Erie Canal, crammed in a tiny car with a bunch of high school girls, refugees from the civil war in Somalia. They wear long dresses and hijabs covering their hair. But they've lived in America most of their lives, so they're also texting and laughing about boys.

Can I tell you guys something?


MANN: You sound really American right now.


MANN: We stop at the community center where they hang out after school with other refugee kids. On this night, there are teenagers here from Nepal, Burma and Somalia. Hamida and Sharifa - we're using only their first names because the girls are just 16 - say they feel really welcome in Utica.

Have you ever had, I don't know, prejudice or people disrespecting you?

HAMIDA: Just in school, like, when I was younger, yeah. 'Cause people didn't understand a lot of stuff. So we had to tell people who we really are.


MANN: Utica is kind of a big, messy experiment in refugee resettlement. It started more than 40 years ago with Vietnamese and Cambodians and they've been coming ever since. Mayor Robert Palmieri says refugees help stabilize the city's shrinking population.

ROBERT PALMIERI: We've had a rebirth into some of our older neighborhoods that were starting to decay. Refugees have come in here and revitalized them and made them a proud neighborhood once again.

MANN: Utica is still struggling, but Palmieri says refugees have helped. They take low wage, low-skilled jobs in factories and hotels. Or they work at the big yogurt plant, Chobani, that was founded in central New York by Hamdi Ulukaya, an immigrant from Turkey.


HAMDI ULUKAYA: In the early days, I went to Utica to the refugee center and I said I'd like to hire these people. You know, we became a community, we became a family. And every single one of them has sweat and hard work into the success.

MANN: Ulukaya spoke there at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative earlier this year in New York City. But the last few years, Chobani and the Utica experiment have sparked growing anger from right-wing websites. They've echoed claims that Muslim refugees bring disease to America and crime and terrorism. President-elect Trump took those fears mainstream during the campaign, warning about Somalis and Syrians.


DONALD TRUMP: And we now have them in our country. And wait till you see - this is going to be the great Trojan horse - and wait till you see what happens in the coming years.

MANN: Trump won this part of upstate New York. And the Republican who won Utica's his seat in Congress, Claudia Tenney, agreed with him, arguing during one of the debates that Syrian refugees are just too risky and should go somewhere else.


CLAUDIA TENNEY: Provide safe and humanitarian areas for these people to be...

LIZ BENJAMIN: So safe areas that are not here is what you're saying?

TENNEY: Not here, right.


MANN: But there are thousands of Muslim refugees already living here - Afghans, Bosnians, Iraqis, Somalis and Syrians. So during my trip to the city, I tried to find people frightened or angry. I talked to local officials, business owners and people on the street. I couldn't find any backlash.

KATHRYN STAM: I think that's made up. I think most of it is [expletive], actually (laughter). I don't see anything to be afraid of.

MANN: Kathryn Stam is an anthropologist at the State University of New York who volunteers helping immigrant families. She says people who live near refugees have a much more grounded sense of how humanitarian resettlement works.

STAM: They just see that they're just trying to get by, you know, they're raising their children.

MANN: Since the 9/11 terror attack, the U.S. has taken in more than 750,000 refugees, many from Muslim countries. The program has proved remarkably safe. Refugees receive far more scrutiny than other immigrants. I asked Hamida and Sharif, the two high school girls from Somalia, what they think of Donald Trump and his warnings about people like them.

HAMIDA: I'll just let him be him. If one person does something and he thinks everybody else does the same thing, that's actually a bad thing, a stereotype.

MANN: Stereotype...


MANN: ...He stereotypes? And what do you think of him?

SHARIFA: I think that he likes to insult people. And I don't think he's going to make America greater.

MANN: Whatever happens now with America's refugee program, they think their place here is safe. They say Utica is home. The week of the election, Hamida became an American citizen. And Sharifa says she plans to do the same soon. For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.