Utica, New York
Utica as a Refugee Haven
Utica, NY is a city of approximately 63,000 people in central New York. Formerly an economic epicenter for coal, textile, and tool industries, this city saw economic and population decline in the mid 19th century. However, it has made a recent comeback with its green initiatives, entrepreneurial success, and large refugee population influxes.
Utica’s foundation was built near Fort Schuyler, a military base constructed during the French and Indian War along the bank of the Mohawk River. The town began with the Bagg’s Hotel, a blacksmith-owned inn. Utica was officially founded in 1798 and was an important crossroads between Rome and Albany, NY. Utica’s proximity to the Mohawk River gave it easy access to the Erie canal, which allowed Utica to greatly benefit from the river trade.
Populations of Italians, Welsh, and American peoples in search of jobs found Utica to be more than suitable. However, as industries rose and fell, so did the population. Organized crime and manufacturing inactivity put Utica in serious financial trouble by the 1980s. More recently, two large companies (Amtrak and ConMed Corporation) have given Utica a major role in their businesses, creating more jobs. Many refugees have found entry-level work at Utica’s hospitals and at ConMed’s manufacturing plant. Many jobs today in Utica are still in manufacturing, but the secondary education institutions also employ many people, including refugees who serve as translators and provide other supplementary services.
The recent boom in population and city livelihood was seen as a sort of “renaissance” or rebirth for the city. Over the past several years, large populations from Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, and Thailand have found refuge in Utica. These groups now make up over 12% of Utica’s population. The diversity that the large influx of refugees has provided has been considered a significant aspect of this revival.
The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees is the primary organization responsible for new refugee resettlement, community integration, and other necessary services for newly arrived refugees in Utica.
Utica has welcomed its refugees with open arms. They have revitalized a failing population and economy. The people also like the diversity. The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, and even the UN have recognized Utica as “the town that loves refugees.”
The City of Utica
The city nickname “The Second Chance City” is is incredibly appropriate due to not only the second chance that refugees and immigrants receive by moving to Utica, but also the city’s revitalization.
Utica has a Children’s Museum of History, Natural History, Science, and Technology. It has hundreds of interactive exhibits including a wooden train and an airplane.
Utica has a number of art institutes, auditoriums, and public parks.
Utica has cold and snowy winters with temperatures reaching 10 degrees fahrenheit, which provides the perfect conditions for one of its most popular events: the annual Snowfari Winter Festival that features many winter recreational and competitive sports.
One of the most popular events that Utica holds is Saranac Thursday, held every Thursday from May through September. The event is held downtown and features live music and street vendors.
A Face of Utica
Mukti, a local resident of Utica, tells about his journey from working on a farm in Bhutan to becoming an academic coach in the Utica school district. Mukti was born and raised in Bhutan. He and his family owned and operated their own farm. His father worked for the transportation department managing road construction. He was also a Hindu priest, performing ceremonies and rituals for the community.
When Mukti was twenty years old, the Bhutanese government began prosecuting people based on their religion and dialect. The government would put people in jail, seize properties, and even murder those that were believed to be Nepalese. They believed that Mukti and his family were from Nepal: “My father was jailed twice. After the second time he was warned that if he stayed he would be killed.” It was after his father’s second jailing in 1990 that Mukti and his family decided to flee to a refugee camp in Nepal.
The conditions of the camp were dismal. Mukti recalls the experience: “They placed us by the bank of the river for seven months with no food to eat. We had to find it ourselves.” Eventually, the Nepalese government recognized the poor conditions of the camp and worked with various organizations to provide services and necessities such as security, sanitation, rice, kerosine fuel, and roofing.
A flight was finally arranged for Mukti and his family in 2001. When they first arrived in Utica, they were very skeptical about the future: “We were worried that because we were Hindu people would not accept it like back in Bhutan.” This was hardly the case. Utica is renowned on a global level for its hospitality and success with refugee integration. With the help of social workers and english teachers, Mukti and his family were able to start a new life.
Naturally, there are still some difficulties for Mukti: “Most of the difficult things are governmental things like rules and laws. They are too strict sometimes, but we have to face it. Medical things are also difficult. It is hard to explain what we need.”
Since 2012, Mukti has been employed as a Nepali academic coach in the Utica public school district, helping Bhutanese children with their english and schoolwork. He loves what he does. In fact, his work is his favorite thing about Utica. With a strong, supportive community and a stable and meaningful job, Mukti has found Utica to be the perfect new home. He has fulfilled the “second chance” that Utica has provided.