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Program aims to bring refugees, families to Rome

Jack Elliott, Daily Sentinel intern
Posted 7/30/22

Several new efforts are being made in Rome and Utica to help refugees and immigrants that currently — or may soon — live in Oneida County’s two largest cities.

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Program aims to bring refugees, families to Rome


Several new efforts are being made in Rome and Utica to help refugees and immigrants that currently — or may soon — live in Oneida County’s two largest cities.

Representatives of the newly-formed Rome Refugee Center (RRC) program said they hope to be up and running by late August, with various resources to help the local foreign-born population. RRC is a program that is operating for now without a brick-and-mortar location in Rome.

RRC members are in communication with Utica’s The Center, 201 Bleecker St., to be part of the new “Circle of Welcome” program that the Utica center is creating.

According to Shelly Callahan, executive director at The Center, the new program has a “goal of helping encourage community engagement to help resettle refugees.” This includes efforts in Utica’s surrounding locations such as Rome and Little Falls, according to Callahan. She added that The Center is talking with the City of Rome about the possibility of refugee resettlement, and that she spoke with Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo.

Izzo said the conversation was productive.

“We had a conversation and The Center is considering moving some folks to Rome, especially from Ukraine,” said Izzo. “We have a very strong Ukrainian and foreign-born population and these people will help the community. These folks help to build population. They work very hard, become homeowners, and help boost employment.”

Getting started

Those at RRC were similarly positive about the possible newcomers and stated that they hope to work closely with the staff of the Utica center as they aim to get off the ground.

“Jennifer VanWagoner, director of grants and community outreach, was extremely helpful,” said Aidan Goldman, board secretary at RRC. Goldman was also hopeful for a quick start to refugee services in Rome.

“Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, who powers Utica, had a funding opportunity for centers considering co-sponsorship, and thankfully Utica won this funding,” he explained. “So now, we are waiting for a co-sponsorship coordinator, and then the program will blast off.”

Goldman, 16, a sophomore at Rome Free Academy, said that he worked with his great aunt, Joan Mammosser, to get his RRC program started. Mammosser is the executive director at RRC and a former teacher at Utica’s Thomas R. Proctor High School.

Goldman said for him, the idea of bringing refugee resettlement to Rome first came about when he met a factory worker from Utica who was a Somalian refugee. He said the man had a great work ethic and opened his eyes to the struggles of adapting to America.

“We not only want newly arriving refugees to come to our community, but to adapt. Refugees are hard-working, adaptive people, coming to the United States to find a better life and make their mark,” he said.

Goldman added that his experiences as a student at RFA helped form his ideas on refugees.

RFA is “an extremely ethnically diverse school,” Goldman said. “I meet all kinds of new people every day, and they tell me their struggles. Language barriers, financial issues, adaptive issues — it’s a hard process.”

Building communities

Currently, the bulk of the foreign-born population in Rome comes from immigration, not refugees, according to Goldman. Rome is home to immigrants from China, Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Lebanon and Jordan. The small amount of refugees that are in Rome are from Myanmar, said Goldman.

In Utica, there is a larger population of refugees, but much of the foreign-born population comes from people classified as having Humanitarian Parole status, according to Callahan. This status includes the Ukrainians who are now coming into the United States through private sponsorship as well as Afghan evacuees. These people are not refugees.

Callahan said that Afghans were the largest group that came to Utica during the last fiscal year, with 158 of them entering the city.

Goldman said that he hopes that RRC can soon help to bring more refugees to Rome in a way that would assist those in need, as well as helping the community.

“Many Ukrainian refugees are immigrating everywhere,” said Goldman. “We are grateful that we get to be one of those communities. We expect 5 to 10 people to start off, and that number may increase or decrease depending on the situation.”

Goldman urged the people of Rome to help RRC achieve their goals and successfully launch. The RRC program intends to work with The Center in Utica in sponsorship roles for individuals and families, as well as help mentor new refugee arrivals.

“The best way Romans can help refugees is to support us. Support our work,” he said. “We want to be a help to our community, while also being a help to new American citizens,” said Goldman.

For an example on how refugees can be beneficial to a community, Goldman says to look to Utica. “Refugees have shaped the City of Utica in a way that is inexplicable, and a way that only progression displays,” he said.

According to the website for Utica’s The Center, more than 800 new citizens are welcomed to the local area each year at naturalization ceremonies. The website also states that The Center has “resettled over 16,500 individuals, helping to re-stabilize the population and reverse a half century of continuous population decline.”

“As a country that’s so well off, we have a moral obligation to help these people that are fleeing for their lives and are deprived of basic human rights,” Callahan explained. “Also, resettlement revitalizes communities like Utica, because the refugees stop population decline, add to the workforce, buy houses, and start businesses. Utica would be a far lesser place without the influence of refugees in the past 40 years.”

Callahan said the reason The Center in Utica is so successful is that it is a “one stop agency” that supports refugees and immigrants in a variety of ways.

The Center offers services to foreign-born members of the community including English classes, cultural competency programs, COVID-19 assistance programs, connection making programs, health care assistance, interpretation, translation, an employment branch, and resettlement programs.

Bookstore aids effort

Goldman said the Rome Refugee Center hopes to offer a similar level of assistance in the future.

The first service that the RRC program is offering is English classes that are currently taking place at the Keaton & Lloyd Bookshop, 236 W. Dominick St. Classes for Spanish speakers and Burmese speakers have also taken place.

This program began after Julie Whittemore, owner of Keaton & Lloyd, posted on Facebook that the shop could accommodate any small charitable groups in need of a meeting space and RRC took her up on the offer.

“I received a call the next day inquiring if it could be utilized for a relatively new program providing free English as a second language classes to recent immigrants or refugees and, naturally, I was very interested,” said Whittemore. “Since then, they’ve started meeting a couple times a week for classes.”

Whittemore said that she tries to take opportunities to help her community as much as possible.

“What’s great about having an indie bookstore is that, unlike a corporate chain, my business can be tailored to this community and give back in ways that are meaningful,” she said. “Supporting programs like this is a no-brainer. Educational initiatives help the community in which I am located to thrive educationally and economically, so everyone wins.”

Book shows impact on Utica

Keaton & Lloyd is also selling the book, “City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town,” by Susan Hartman, which tells the story of the impact of refugees in Utica.

Hartman is a writer and journalist whose stories have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor,  and Newsday. She was educated locally in Clinton at Kirkland College. She then received her master’s of fine arts degree at Columbia University’s School of the Art, where she now teaches.

For eight years, Hartman followed three refugees as they adapted to life in Utica. According to Hartman, the city could have suffered disastrous consequences if it wasn’t for the refugee population, which she said helped revive the community.

Being educated at nearby Kirkland College, Hartman said she always felt connected to Utica.

“I had a personal relationship with Utica because I went to Kirkland,” she remembered. “I saw that there was very little economic activity at the time and little going on, but it had a charm to it. It had all these old buildings.”

Hartman said the idea for the book came when an economics professor in Utica called her in 2013 detailing how the city had become a home to refugees. She said she visited Utica and was struck by the foreign influence including ethnic restaurants and mosques.

She soon began work with the New York Times about the topic, and it is while working on the project that she met the three refugees named Sadia, Ali, and Mersiha, who served as the subjects for her book.

“My book really began by accident. It wasn’t the plan to dedicate so much time, but I was hooked by the drama of the city and of their lives,” said Hartman.

Hartman detailed the positive impact that she believes newcomers have on cities such as Utica.

“Refugees come and start working. They then buy and renovate their houses and drive economic involvement,” she said. “This attracts people to stay in or come back to their city because there is more opportunity now.”

Hartman said she saw the positive effect personally during her time following the refugees.

“I was Inspired by the families that I covered,” said the author. “They always worked together to achieve their goals. There can be conflict and trauma in the backgrounds of many of these people, but they worked through it.”

“City of Refugees” was released on June 7. It had a local launch at Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, 310 Genesee St., Utica. Two of the refugees featured in Hartman’s book were there, as well as many of the other people Hartman interviewed for her work.

She said that community involvement is very important while dealing with refugee and immigrant populations. She added that Utica is a unique place and other cities should look to it as a blueprint for their future.

Keaton & Lloyd’s Whittemore echoed the ideas of the author.

“Refugee populations bring cultural vibrancy and are often entrepreneurial, establishing restaurants, stores, and other small businesses,” she said. “They’ve livened Utica up and made it a much more interesting city. My hope is that Rome can experience similar benefits in the long-term.”


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