The Rust Belt is in dire need of rejuvenation. It is time for these cities to invest fully in refugee resettlement.
At five minutes until 6 p.m. on a mid-September evening, a crowd was forming outside of Bob’s School on the north side of Syracuse, N.Y. The small clusters of people, chatting cheerfully in Nepalese, inched towards the front entrance. The setting sun highlighted the reds and oranges of the Americanized kiras worn by the women. And most of the men wore contrasting multi-colored topi along with grey slacks and sweatshirts. None of the neighbors paid much attention to this growing congregation of Bhutanese refugees.
A wave of excitement propagated through the crowd as Josh Eberle, the head of the Syracuse University Program for Refugee Assistance (SUPRA), arrived with a handful of other teachers. Without hesitation, Eberle weaved through the many “hellos” to unlock the front entrance. He asked everyone to wait outside as they prepared the room. The crowd nodded with only passing commitment as they jockeyed for position inside the door frame. Zoma, an 11th grader with bright red lipstick, skinny black pants and a sparkly pink and blue hair clip, took control and stopped the forward momentum with a sharply pointed “excuse you.”
Inside the basement cafeteria of the center for The Refugee Assistance Program, known locally as Bob’s School for the longtime program director Bob Huss, about 90 Bhutanese and Iraqi refugees sat quietly at long lunchroom tables. Eberle, dressed in a brightly colored button-up accented with a short, orange quiff atop his freckled forehead, stood in front of a concrete wall decorated with decades-old pictures of priests. He introduced himself and the man standing at his side: Jawala Regmi, the night’s designated translator the Bhutanese English Language Learner community leader. Eberle began simply by telling the crowd that they would only be doing English language placement tests that night. Regmi, a head smaller than Eberle, talked in Nepalese for the next three minutes. Eberle smiled at the first of the many elongated translations to come.
Syracuse has been a refugee resettlement site for 35 years. During the last decade, the average number of individuals that arrive each year has increased by 450 to more than 800. According to the InterFaith Works Center for New Americans, there are currently about 12,000 refugees and former refugees in the city. That is more than 8% of Syracuse’s population.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services defines “refugee” as a person who is located outside of the U.S.; is of special humanitarian concern; and demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. (A refugee cannot also have participated in the persecution of another group of people.) A “refugee” is not synonymous with an “immigrant.” Refugees do not have the choice of where they are resettled, and they cannot leave the country again without the permission of the U.S. government until they become naturalized American citizens.
Syracuse absorbed 7,210 refugees between 2001 and 2012. Like many Rust Belt cities — the postindustrial region in the Midwest and Northeastern of the U.S. suffering from economic decline, population loss and urban decay due to the declining industrial sector — it is a perfect fit for these refugees. Syracuse’s population peaked in 1950 when it tallied just over 220,000 people. It is now home to less than 150,000. With the people went the tax money, support for local business, value of property, and mental and physical human capital. This means that Syracuse is a city with the infrastructure for nearly 75,000 people more than it currently supports. The local government can provide homes and a support system for refugees without worrying about stressing the city on the physical level.
There are other benefits for Syracuse as well. Refugees come with a string of federal money, $925 per individual to be exact. That money can be used for rent, food, clothing, and any other settling costs. In other words, the 827 refugees relocated to Syracuse in 2011 injected more than $750,000 into the local economy just on arrival. And despite urban myths, these are tax-paying individuals as well. On one level, it is a human-based stimulus.
Beyond the economics, the human capital investment a city makes in resettling refugees is significant. The people displaced by political unrest come in all shapes and sizes. This wide range of formal schooling and professional background brings a plethora of new possibilities for cities depleted by brain drain. Many refugees have to start in entry level jobs despite their previous professions due to language restrictions and lack of opportunities, but after investing five years of English training and societal assimilation, they can apply for permanent residency in the U.S. The new community roots established in Syracuse over those years significantly increase the chances they remain and contribute to the city’s rejuvenation in myriad ways.
From a wider scope, the settling of refugees is also an effective public diplomacy initiative by the U.S. By allowing communities of foreign populations to reestablish their lives within the borders, the U.S. gets the benefit of association with that considerable change. As well, these people get first-hand experience of American culture. If this experience is positive, it will spread outward from credible sources improving the U.S.’s soft power in hard-to-reach places. Over time, there is potential for a tipping point of positive public opinion of the U.S. originating from these sources in countries like Iraq, Somalia and other hotbeds of conflict and anti-U.S. sentiment. It is public diplomacy at its purest.
Each volunteer SUPRA teacher took a group of about 12 refugees into different corners of the cafeteria in Bob’s School. They were to ask them a series of questions and rank their answers on a scale of 1–3 depending on their level of comprehension and ability to respond appropriately. This rubric allows SUPRA to divvy up the students into level-appropriate classes. The mood of the future students seemed to slide from anticipation to dread the closer they got to the designated testing chair.
Kenah, an elderly woman wearing a yellow and brown sari-like outfit and large gold earrings that matched the one in her nose, looked intently at the markings Zach, the teacher, made on his form. She did not look happy. Zach moved onto the next question, “Where do you live?” Kenah listened, nodded and then turned immediately to a group of four other women of about the same age. They rapidly debated the question in Nepalese before settling on an agreed-upon answer. Kenah turned back toward Zach and confidently replied, “Yes.”
The exchange made Zoma, the Bhutanese teenager, laugh. Unsurprisingly, the younger the refugee, the easier the transition into American society. Talking out of the side of her mouth since the other was filled with a large piece of chewing gum, Zoma explained how she often has to act as the translator for her parents in public. Though her father practices English at home “all the time,” he loses confidence when he needs to use it even in simple exchanges. The thought exasperates Zoma, but it also made her reflect on her first day at a local high school nine months earlier when a fellow student and future friend came to her aid after she burst into tears over the anxiety of the situation. Zoma paused and thought for a few seconds at the end of her story, “maybe my dad just needs a friend too.”
Josh Eberle was born and raised in a “Rust Belt suburb,” a declining satellite town dependent on a declining city, just south of Syracuse. His experiences working at an orphanage in Kenya, backpacking through the Middle East and studying abroad in Jerusalem during his undergrad years at Syracuse University raised his awareness of the issues faced by displaced people. He was hired by the InterFaith Works Center for New Americans in 2007 to work with the city’s refugees. And over the next four years, he worked his way up to being the Community Integration Coordinator, a position he felt he was not equipped to do as a 25-year-old.
To rectify his perceived shortcomings, Eberle returned to Syracuse University to pursue joint Master of Public Administration and Juris Doctor degrees. His experience and firsthand knowledge of the city’s idiosyncratic refugee system led to his current post as SUPRA’s student leader. It is one of a number of recent student groups that are increasing engagement with the local community, a priority of the outgoing chancellor, Nancy Cantor. The university’s high attendance cost and geographic position of being perched atop a hill that is surrounded by significantly poorer neighborhoods makes for an easy analogy for criticism.
But SUPRA did not originate with the students; it originated with Regmi, the night’s translator. An educator in Bhutan until political turmoil forced him to flee the country, Regmi knew that his community needed English education if it was to flourish in Syracuse: “Unless they have language, they are lost.” So, several years back, he reached out to graduate students at the university and inspired the organization of SUPRA. He is what Eberle describes as a “community anchor.” His resourcefulness and sponsorship helps other Bhutanese refugees seek passage to Syracuse, because established refugees can lobby for their extended families to be placed in the same city. Existing communities can be reestablished in neighborhoods an ocean away from their original home.
Harith Alnoamy is another community anchor. Now an employment specialist for the InterFaith Works Center for New Americans and a board member of the International Center of Syracuse, Alnoamy was displaced from Iraq in 2008. Soldiers were his only interaction with Americans before being placed in Syracuse, and he feared the rest of the country would be just as aggressive. He now feels that those worries were unfounded and eagerly anticipates January 2014, when he can take the official test to gain U.S. citizenship.
Wearing jeans, a tucked-in dress shirt and a well-kept mustache, Alnoamy coached a fellow Iraqi on how to fill out a particular job application while the Bhutanese refugees took their placement tests. He greatly appreciates the opportunity to assist other refugees at the beginning of their life as Americans, and he stresses that the process is different for each person. Some try to imitate their surroundings while others steadfastly refuse to change. And because he sees no difference in the settling success rate between the two strategies, he advises newcomers not to abandon their culture while assimilating into American society.
Eberle agrees with Alnoamy. He feels that assimilation means that “we are melting you down into what America wants you to be.” Instead, he prefers the description “integration” for the process of refugee resettling. SUPRA follows suit by describing its students as ELLs, English language learners, instead of the typical ESL, English as a second language. “It’s just not accurate,” Eberle insists. The refugees that arrive in Syracuse can already speak three or four languages, sometimes because of previous forced displacements. English is just the next in line to learn. “Integrating is a tapestry. You come into America with your own colors, and you weave into the culture. That doesn’t require assimilation, which suggests you lose something.”
A Bhutanese teenager with a purple Ring Pop led a group of middle-aged men dressed in a hodgepodge of traditional clothing and sweat suits across the cafeteria. She sat them down in front of a SUPRA volunteer. “My name is Nicole,” the teacher said with a smile. The men repeated her name under their breath, slowly mouthing the two syllables as to memorize physical movements that accompany sound. One man suddenly lifted his head at Nicole and slowly enunciated “thank you.” The rest of the table vigorously nodded in agreement.
“There are not a lot of friendly faces on the north side of Syracuse,” Eberle mentioned later. The refugees often get placed in the poorest neighborhoods of a city because of Federal restrictions and funding. The already-established members of those communities are struggling themselves. And the introduction of refugees often causes tension due to cultural misunderstandings and the misplaced impression of job competition. Any friendly interaction the newly relocated refugees get aids future exchanges in less controlled environments.
Eberle also stresses that SUPRA catalyzes transformative experiences to the students and the teacher alike. Most Syracuse University students rarely interact with the community outside of campus. SUPRA teachers often help their students with much more than just the English language: they act as a middleman for landlords and utility companies, explain how to fill out forms, teach basic American etiquette, and help with other externalities that occur in everyday life. The teachers become temporary support systems. And when a refugee gets through the first difficult few months of life in a brand new country, they become support systems of their own for the next group of arrivals. SUPRA “teaches English not to assimilate, but to teach the refugees to communicate in this society so they can become their own public diplomats.”
Syracuse is forward-thinking in reestablishing itself as a refugee resettlement site. Persecuted people from across the globe are able to continue their lives peacefully and productively. And the city, drained from shifting economies and external circumstances, is rejuvenated by their presence. Communities crop up with new businesses, consumers and opportunities for growth. Distant cultures intertwine to form relationships with unforeseen benefits. And in the process, Syracuse finds a fresh identity alongside its new inhabitants, attracting new American residents with its idiosyncratic and multi-cultural environment while providing revived opportunities for its own.
Division of Local Government Services & Economic Development (2004, December). Population Trends in New York State’s Cities. Office of the New York State Comptroller.
Editorial Board (2012, October 16). Engaged Chancellor: Cantor will leave a campus and city transformed. Syracuse.com.
Mitchell, Chip (2011, December 1). Rustbelt city wants immigrants, skilled or not. WBEZ 91.5.
Office of Refugee Resettlement (2013, July). Key Indicators for Refugee Placement FY 2014. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Onondaga Citizens League [PDF document]. The World at Our Doorstep, 2012-2013 Study, Report No. 32.
UNHCR (not dated). Refugees. UNHCR.org.
United States Census 2010 (not dated). Data. Census.gov.
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (2013, April 11). Refugees. USCIS.gov.