City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town (Beacon Press, 2022) paints an intimate portrait of the newcomers revitalizing a fading industrial town – illuminating the larger canvas of refugee life in 21st century America. For many Americans, ‘refugee’ still conjures up the image of a threatening outsider: a stranger who will steal jobs, or a family who will be a drain on the economy. Yet, most people know little about how refugees have actually fared in America: the lives they have built over generations and the cities they have transformed. In New York state, the old manufacturing town of Utica could have disappeared altogether if it wasn’t for the growing population of refugees who revved the economic engine – starting small businesses, renovating houses, and adding a fresh vitality to the community through cultural diversity. For eight years, journalist Susan Hartman followed three newcomers as they put down roots in a new city: Sadia, a bright, rebellious Somali Bantu girl battling her formidable mother; Ali, an Iraqi translator, still suffering trauma from the ongoing war in his homeland; and Mersiha, an ebullient Bosnian, who dreams of opening a café. They’re also the entry point to those leading the city: the mayor, teachers, doctors, and firefighters, who have adapted to the refugees that have made the city their home. Hartman explores the ways these refugees have stitched together their American and traditional identities, the dreams they have for their new lives in Utica, and the pain some still carry from their pasts.
Stephen Pimpare is director of the Public Service & Nonprofit Leadership program and Faculty Fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.
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