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Documentary explores how refugees have changed Utica

 A scene from Utica: The Last Refuge shows a woman holding a sign that reads "Utica hearts Refugees!"
Provided photo by Utica: The Last Refuge
A scene from Utica: The Last Refuge

A documentary being screened in Utica this weekend looks at how the city in New York’s Mohawk Valley has become a haven for refugees over the past several decades. “Utica: The Last Refuge” follows a number of refugees from Bosnia, Sudan, Syria and elsewhere. It also explores the work of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees and its role in helping people acclimate to their new home.

The film plays at the Stanley Theatre in Utica on Saturday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m.

WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with the film’s director, Loch Phillipps.

Phillipps: Well, Adam and I had been doing a bunch of films for IRC, the International Rescue Committee, on refugee issues. And I had come to understand it as a win-win situation for wherever they're resettled. And I've been looking to tell solution stories. I think in these troubling times, we really need to be pointed towards things that we do right, that we can build on, to do better in all ways. So I was really excited about that. And so Adam, told me that Utica, near where we both went to school at Hamilton was a great place for refugee resettlement. I said, you’re kidding. Because when I left Utica it was at its low point in the early 80s. And we went up there, and we met with Shelley [Callahan] who runs the center [Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees]. And while we were walking around the center, I happened to see a poster that proclaimed Utica as the town that loves refugees. And I asked Shelly, what is this? And she said, ‘Oh, that's the cover of UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] magazine. They devoted entire issue to us.’ I said, really? She said, yeah, we're great at resettlement here. This town is built on it. And come to find out the population is now nearly 20% refugees and their children. Remarkable. So we kind of felt like we have a good story here that we can tell.

Levulis: And for our listeners, you mentioned Adam there and Adam is?

Phillipps: Adam Bedient was the Director of Photography. My main man, he was also the lead editor on the project. There are three Hamilton graduates who worked on it. As soon as we left, Utica I said, Adam, we have to bring Dave Chanatry into the project as well. And Dave was the local producer got us into all the far corners of Utica, that we wouldn't even have been aware of.

Levulis: You were making this film during the Trump administration, which when compared to predecessors and the current Biden administration, had rather restrictive refugee policies. During the filming, President Trump actually made a campaign stop in Utica, this was in August 2018, leading up to the midterm elections. In filming his appearance and the corresponding rallies that occurred in the city, what did that bring to light for you regarding how refugees are seen in Utica?

Phillipps: Well, it was interesting for us because we were over with Shelly and they were making posters to go out and protest his appearance in Utica on behalf of refugees, and they were nervous, they didn't know what to expect when they got out there. And it was very surprising and gratifying to everybody to find that there were something like 60 or so Trump supporters there. And on the other side of the street, a huge number of people protesting Trump's appearance, and really talking a lot about him on immigration. You know, there was a lot of posters that said, ‘we love our refugees.’ I was amazed that it was so specific to that point. And then we went over and interviewed a couple of the Trump supporters, and they themselves didn't really have a problem with refugees in the area. I mean, I think, on both sides of the aisle, people recognize this program really works in Utica.

Levulis: The film makes the point and you made the point earlier in our conversation here, that Utica has been relatively welcoming to refugees for decades, especially going back to those fleeing the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. And that certainly has continued to today. So from what you've learned, what you got through the film, why is Utica the town that loves refugees?

Phillipps: I think it's a fortuitous bunch of circumstances. You have a struggling Rust Belt city that's lost a lot of population. So there was a lot of cheap real estate available. And then you have the Bosnian influx. And it turns out that these guys are into construction. It was because they do these stucco facades, you could run around the city and you could see Oh, Bosnians fixed that place up, Bosnians fixed that place up. And the crowning jewel of that, there was a rundown, dilapidated church right in downtown Utica, which was becoming an eyesore and would have cost the city something like a quarter of a million dollars to demolish and take away. But the Bosnians wanted it. They wanted to turn it into a mosque. And the mayor has told us that while they were deliberating on whether to give the church to them to rebuild, they looked out the window, because you could see it from the mayor's office, and they saw Bosnians on the roof already working on the place. So they said, I think we should give it to these guys. Gave it to him for a buck. And now it's a beautiful mosque and a centerpiece downtown, and really sort of shows off the revitalization of the area.

Levulis: Are you aware if Afghan refugees are being resettled in Utica?

Phillipps: Yes, they're coming. Shelly told me they are coming. And she says we should be happy about this, because the Afghan refugees are going to be particularly easy to resettle, because a lot of them were English translators for the military. So they don't have a language barrier to overcome when they get here. And they're familiar with Americans. And she says they should resettle easily.

Levulis: That was one of the eye opening things in your film, is it's not just a language barrier. When refugees come over here, it's things as understanding what an oven is.  You know, some of the things that were so eye opening, are things that we Americans take for granted every single day. And I think that that brought a realism to it.

Phillipps: Yeah, you see that in some of the early scenes with the Azein family who came from rural Sudan, and they literally lived in mud huts. Now, I don't want Americans to take that the wrong way. And we've given Nasradin in the film plenty of time to speak his mind, he loved his life there, you know, he would not have left like many refugees wouldn't leave unless they were forced to. He had a great life and felt really at home in in his mud hut and doing this kind of farming work he was doing. So to see him transition into a job at a wire company, a job that I looked at, because I don't know if I could figure this out myself. And to see him figure that out. I was like, wow, this is something to see. So I think refugees come from different backgrounds. There are a lot of middle class refugees who came here too. Syrians in particular, were largely middle class urban people who came here. So they were already familiar with a lot of the kinds of work and things we do here. But Nasradin, not so much and what he's accomplished here amazes me.

Levulis: Understanding that nobody has a crystal ball, but from what you've learned through the film, and spending time with the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, what in your mind is the future for Utica as a refugee resettlement area?

Phillipps: I think it's bright. I think there's going to be more refugees coming. I think Utica still has a reasonable amount of cheaper real estate available. I think those kinds of cost of living issues make it ideal. But really, what we see when we're traveling around is how much employers want this influx of refugees, they want this reliable workforce, there are businesses ready to come back to Utica. And a lot of employers approached the center regularly looking for workers and they've become something of an employment agency. And they're very good at it. And you know, it's a win-win for the city. This is not going to take jobs from Americans, it's actually going to create jobs for Americans.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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