The Town that Loves Refugees
The situation in Utica is ideal for refugees. Cheap housing and abundant low-wage jobs mean newcomers quickly find places to live and work. Utica's population is now around 60,000, including 8,000 former refugees.
Officially, refugees are persons displaced from their home countries because they were caught in armed conflict or were at risk of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or political opinions. Every year, the U.S. accepts up to 70,000 of the 14 million refugees worldwide and resettles them, legally and permanently, across the nation.
Ray Bakke, head of the Bakke Graduate University of Ministry in Seattle, has spent his career developing a theology of urban ministry and immigrant outreach. He says in the Bible, refugees prove to be a blessing to their host nationsone example is Egypt, where Mary and Joseph fled with Jesus after Herod's threats.
"We ought to be saying, 'They're coming to restore our faith,' and rejoice," Bakke says.
Bakke points to Psalm 107 as a promise of divine care for refugees: "[T]hey cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle."
Beginning with Boat People
After the Vietnam War, a group of Utica citizens, including leading pastors, were deeply moved by the suffering of Southeast Asians and by their valiant efforts to survive and flee the war.
The group decided to help Asian refugees migrate to Utica and created the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR). This non-sectarian organization partners with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which resettles immigrants nationwide. Much of the credit for MVRCR goes to Peter Vogelaar, executive director. The center offers a wide spectrum of services to help refugees adjust to American life. It receives $1.5 million annually in federal aid.
Last summer, about 40 recent immigrants crammed themselves into an MVRCR classroom without air conditioning. Cambodian monks sat in saffron robes. Somali Muslim women were draped in yards of boldly patterned cotton. Pentecostals from Belarus were outfitted in conservative, European-style attire.
Chris DeSanctis, a local bank executive, taught them the fundamentals of American life, such as the importance of establishing a credit history. Her lesson was translated into four languages. Many refugees had lost money in homeland banks, so they typically carried cash. But they were curious about the credit card offers they kept getting in the mail.
These programs are one reason the refugee center succeeds in integrating immigrants into Utica's life. If people build a credit history, they can eventually buy a home. If they own homes, they tend to fix up their houses and yards, so they buy supplies at the local hardware store. At some point, they may hire a local plumber. They pay property taxes, so they may also have an interest in the school board and voting and U.S. citizenship. In short, they invest in the community.
Utica's diverse faith community forms another pillar of support for refugees. Mosques, temples, and churches address the physical and spiritual needs of refugees. Up to 10 percent of Utica may be Muslim, due to the influx of Bosnian refugees. The local mosque is one of the most ethnically varied in the nation.