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What happened when this struggling city opened its arms to refugees

July 6, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
After decades of decline, the city of Utica, New York, is growing again, thanks in part to its reputation as "the town that loves refugees." And their basic reason for loving refugees is simple: An influx of new residents and workers have helped keep its economy afloat. But are there also downsides to an refugee-driven recovery? Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: now, the Trump administration has set a lower refugee limit for the U.S. for this fiscal year. In the coming week, the U.S. will hit that ceiling of accepting 50,000 new refugees.

The city of Utica, New York, has long taken a more welcoming approach. One out of every four citizens there is a refugee and the evidence is they’re helping revitalize the community.

Paul Solman has our update. It’s part of his weekly series, “Making Sense.”


PAUL SOLMAN: Post-industrial Utica, New York, upstate, downtrodden, and, in the heart of downtown, where the United Methodist Church used to be, a thriving mosque.

In the world beyond Utica, the tide of refugees rises, the fear of foreigners swells. Muslim terrorists, real and imagined, haunt us.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

PAUL SOLMAN: President Trump’s calls for even a partial Muslim ban were repeatedly rebuffed in court, but the Supreme Court has now let some of it stand until it considers the ban’s legality this fall.

But when we asked Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri if the city would be willing to resettle Syrian refugees —

MAYOR ROBERT PALMIERI, Utica, New York: I would say, absolutely, we would be, because Utica starts with you. It’s as simple as that.

PAUL SOLMAN: There’s the humanitarian aspect, of course, America’s historic promise to extend a hand to huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But Utica likes the economics.

ROBERT PALMIERI: They’re willing to work and they work extremely hard. It’s the rebound for our great city.

PAUL SOLMAN: Refugee resettlement as an economic development tool, a Rust Belt revival strategy Utica has pioneered. After decades of decline — the city lost a third of its population when its factories closed — Utica is growing again, back up to 62,000 people, thanks in part to its reputation as, quote, the town that loves refugees, who now make up one out of every four residents. Thousands are Muslims from Bosnia, refugees of the war there in the 1990s.

SAKIB DURACAK, Bosnian War Refugee:  Basically, we left everything what we have at that time and start from zero again.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sakib Duracak, who trained in Bosnia as a construction engineer, started a small business in Utica rehabbing cheap, often crumbling, houses for refugees looking to build a new life.

SAKIB DURACAK: A huge opportunity, because, at the time when we came in Utica, it’s a relatively very dead and poor city.

PAUL SOLMAN: Bosnians have visibly spruced up Utica’s east side and beyond. But there’s an even more basic reason to welcome refugees to a town like Utica.

ELLEN KRALY, Colgate University: To have an economy, you have to have workers, and you have to have consumers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Professor Ellen Kraly teaches demography at nearby Colgate University.

ELLEN KRALY: The influx of refugees to Utica allowed us to retain some smaller industries that were looking for highly motivated labor.

PAUL SOLMAN: And if past suffering helps fuel motivation, Thada Paw has plenty to spare.

THADA PAW, Karen Refugee: I work very hard because I want to live American life.

PAUL SOLMAN: An ethnic Karen, a persecuted minority in Burma, she spent 23 years starting at age four in refugee camps in Thailand. When she was 14 —

THADA PAW: Burmese army, they just shoot our refugee camp and make it burn. My sister’s best friend, she burn alive.

PAUL SOLMAN: A week later, her 17-year-old sister committed suicide.

THADA PAW: I think she tired of life. Whole, our life, we have to run, run, run, run for safety.

PAUL SOLMAN: Paw came to Utica nine years ago, worked as a nursing home aide and housekeeper while studying English, then as a medical interpreter. Four years ago, she joined the direct sales firm Mary Kay Cosmetics. Within months, she’d worked her way up to the coveted pink Cadillac.

THADA PAW: I travel in Albany, Buffalo. It’s really hard, but now I love to live here.

PAUL SOLMAN: OK, so we get why refugees for Utica, but why Utica for refugees?

IBRAHIM ROSIC, Bosnian War Refugee: Utica was close to Syracuse, and Tom Cruise is from Syracuse. So I thought I was going to see Tom Cruise.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sadly, for Bosnian refugee Ibrahim Rosic, no Cruise, happily, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center.

SHELLY CALLAHN, Executive Director, Mohawk Valley Resource Center: We receive $1,125 federal to be spent on behalf of each arriving refugee.

PAUL SOLMAN: With those dollars, says executive director Shelly Callahan, the refugee center rents an apartment, furnishes it, gets the utilities turned on, and starts teaching the basics.

SHELLY CALLAHAN: So, it’s how to lock your door, how to work the stove, the thermostat, the plumbing.

PAUL SOLMAN: There are also English lessons.

MALE: Is somebody sitting to the left of you?


MALE: Yes.

FEMALE: Right?

MALE: Left, right.

FEMALE: You have got to shop around.

PAUL SOLMAN: Introductions to strange new foods.

FEMALE: Celery. We’re going to make celery and kale.

PAUL SOLMAN: And for those who can drive, the all-important class in parking tickets, a veritable auditorium of Babel. But within a few months, they’re on their own.

SHELLY CALLAHAN: They actually come here owing their airfare back to the federal government. So, they are expected to get a job as soon as possible.

PAUL SOLMAN: Although there are no hard statistics on how many refugees do or don’t find jobs after their aid ends, some qualify for public assistance. Ibrahim Rosic was literally torn apart in the Bosnian conflict.

IBRAHIM ROSIC: In 1994, I stepped on a landmine. I lost my left leg, and my right leg was severely damaged. I have no knee. I can’t bend it.

PAUL SOLMAN: He is officially 100 percent disabled, but, says the former engineer —

IBRAHIM ROSIC: I work two jobs. I work full-time as a director at Mohawk Valley Community College, and I also work as an adjunct instructor at SUNY Poly. I am not a burden on the community. I am not a burden on social services.

Yes, community helped me to get this, but now it’s my time to pay back. And I would say most refugees do the same.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, are refugees the economic boon that motivated immigrants famously have been? Yes, says economist Jeffrey Sachs, but there are negatives.

JEFFREY SACHS, Economist, Columbia University: Some workers face increased job competition and their wages can be driven down. If lower-skilled immigrants come, then lower-skilled American workers may see a decline in their wages, whereas business owners may see more workers at lower cost for them.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what if, as many Americans fear, even just a few are terrorists?

Shelly Callahan’s response? This isn’t Europe.

SHELLY CALLAHAN: Refugees are the most intensively screened immigrants really to come to this country, about two years of intense scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, ICE, Department of State. There’s DNA testing involved.

MALE: For those people who is proven as bad people, we don’t want them here.

PAUL SOLMAN: The al Saad family, Palestinians who for decades lived in Baghdad, fled during the troop surge of 2007, the deadliest year of the Iraq war.

YOUSIF AL SAAD, Iraq War Refugee: I got kidnapped there by, I don’t know, some militia.

FEMALE: One of my other brothers, too.

YOUSIF AL SAAD: My other brother.

FEMALE: They beat him up.

YOUSIF AL SAAD: He got beat up. I lost many friends of mine.

PAUL SOLMAN: They spent three years in a camp on the Syrian border, before being cleared for transit to the United States. Yousif al Saad went to work at the Chobani yogurt plant outside Utica, whose CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, has championed the rights of refugees and hired hundreds of them.

We were supposed to tape there, but at the last minute, Chobani pulled out, citing security concerns, fear for the safety of employees in the current political environment.

Understandably, as right wing media had targeted a Chobani plant in Twin Falls, Idaho, where some 30 percent of the workers are refugees.

ALEX JONES, Info Wars: So, let’s look at the headlines.

PAUL SOLMAN: According to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, citing Breitbart —

ALEX JONES: TB spiked 500 percent in Twin Falls during 2012 as Chobani yogurt opened the plant. Idaho refugee boys admit to sexually assaulting 5-year-old. OK. Twin Falls refugee rape special report: why are refugees moving in? Oh, the Chobani plant.

PAUL SOLMAN: But the sexual assault by minors is shrouded in secrecy, and the TB case spike was from one positive test to six, in a nearly 12,000 square mile area that included twin falls, none of the cases contagious, none involving Chobani employees.

ALEX JONES: This isn’t some game people. There’s a total Islamic takeover taking place. Behind the scenes, they got Muslims following me around.

PAUL SOLMAN: In April, the company sued Jones for false and defamatory reports.

ALEX JONES: And I’m ready to take them on. Christ, please help us win this. Please help me be strong.

PAUL SOLMAN: The following month, Jones issued an apology and a retraction.

ALEX JONES: On behalf of Info Wars, I regret that we mischaracterized Chobani, its employees and the people of Twin Falls, Idaho, the way we did.

PAUL SOLMAN: Two final follow-ups: unemployment in Twin Falls has dropped from 7 percent to 3 percent since Chobani came to town in 2012.

MALE: Please remain standing for the Pledge of Allegiance.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the Trump administration is seeking to cut the number of refugees allowed annually into the U.S., from 110,000 to 50,000.

CROWD: With liberty and justice for all.

MALE: Let’s have a round of applause for our new citizens.


PAUL SOLMAN: Last February in Utica, Yousif al Saad joined 29 others, from 15 different countries in becoming a U.S. citizen.

FEMALE: Congratulations. Your new flag.

PAUL SOLMAN: Almost all were refugees. We leave the last word to Judge David Peebles.

JUDGE DAVID PEEBLES: America is now your country. I cannot overemphasize the need now, more than ever, for you and your fellow citizens to unite, answer the call and assist in bettering our society and our world. Congratulations on becoming a citizen of the greatest nation on Earth. God bless all of you and God bless America.


PAUL SOLMAN: For the PBS NewsHour, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman.