Lost in Transition

photo by Riley Bunch
photo by Riley Bunch


The following feature appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Medley Magazine.


See Lee, along with his mother and brother, follows the bright pink clad real-estate agent up the steps into a house in South Utica. An older man sits in a rocking chair on the porch and gestures them inside when they ask about touring the house.

Upon entering, an older woman props her feet on a coffee table. She glances at them angrily. “No one told me people were coming to see the house today,” she says. “Nope, go away.”

The family follows the agent around the back of the house to the entrance of the vacant apartment upstairs. Lee notes the large backyard as his mother walks silently around, stamping her feet on the soil to determine its quality; it’s decent enough to plant a garden. Lee’s mother wants to grow crops that are harder to find at the local market: lemongrass, chilies, beans, and pumpkins.

Barefoot in the empty kitchen, the family speaks in Burmese. “How much is this one?” Lee asks. It’s $84,000, with some wiggle room — still over budget. The Lees plan to buy their first house almost a decade after being resettled in Utica, New York. Refugee families like the Lees make up 17.6 percent of the city’s foreign-born population. They usually live in various rented apartments or with relatives for extended periods of time after resettlement due to lack of bank credit.

When refugees resettle into cities like Utica, the government gives them a 90 day period of support. Government funded agencies pick up refugees from the airport and transport them to furnished apartments with fully stocked fridges. Nonetheless, refugees still face what seem to be insurmountable problems.

Chris Sunderlin, having spent a few years working with the refugee population, sought to turn the remains of a closing church on Scott Street into a resource center for those with post-resettlement issues. In the spring of 2014, the Midtown Utica Community Center opened to bring refugees and the community together. The center, completely volunteer-run, offers “mentoring” to refugees. Kathryn Stam, an associate professor of anthropology at SUNY Polytechnic Institute and volunteer at MUCC, began working with the refugee population after discovering the community center. Not long after arriving at MUCC, she started helping community members with post-resettlement issues.

Soon, Stam became friends with refugees and they began confiding in her how overwhelmed they felt. “When refugees first get here, they have orientation, but the problem with orientation is that they cover so much ground,” Stam says. “People are just getting here, getting used to where their houses are, how to use all the things in them, how to reconnect with family. The things that will matter to them later won’t matter the first couple of weeks when agencies are still involved.”

During the first few months of resettling, government funded agencies provide cultural orientations, which show refugees how to do everyday tasks such as using a stove, using a telephone, and turning on lights. Doctors’ appointments administer health exams and shots that will allow refugees to begin integrating school and work. Regardless of this aid, refugees still face a harrowing transition.

Stam and Sunderlin recall a horror story of a young boy whose fingers were cut off by a factory machine on the job. By the time doctors saw him, they couldn’t reattach his fingers. As a result of the language barrier and lack of personal documents, he moved from hospital to hospital.

For brand new residents, cultural literacy can’t be taught or retained within a 90 day period. Phone calls to legal offices for services such as food stamps, driver’s license exams, or even the process of scheduling medical appointments seem impossible.

“For brand new residents, cultural literacy can’t be taught or retained within a 90 day period.”

After initially resettling in Indianapolis, Layla Ali, along with her mother and nine siblings, moved to New York when her parents separated. “The stress of coming to a new country can put pressure on parents,” she says. “If you don’t know English, who are you going to ask for help?” In the case of the Ali family, the parents took their eldest out of school to act as a family translator. This damaged his education tremendously and made integration more difficult than it already was. Cultural tensions between older and younger generations of refugees add another divide within the community.

Ali, a Somali-Bantu, was born in a refugee camp in Kenya after her parents fled the Somalian Civil War. “Maybe they thought a refugee camp would be better than being in a war torn country,” Ali jokes. “But Kenya is also a war torn country.” Ali struggles to assimilate to American culture while also dealing with pressure to maintain Somali-Bantu traditions. Ali and her siblings often felt like the odd ones out in school. “Oh my god! A colored person,” Ali says. “With a head wrap! I wonder what that means?! So I was ‘that’ girl. That mystery girl.” The traditions don’t end there. For Somali-Bantus, it’s common to marry daughters at a young age. Her mother started pressuring her to marry early on. Ali constantly battles marriage pressure from the older women in her community. “I want to make sure my family eats before I eat. If I get a college degree, I can show the younger generation, look, I didn’t have to be that girl that got married at 16 or 18.” Ali says.

Fifty miles away from Utica in Syracuse, New York, community members are finding large numbers of refugees who need post-resettlement help, as well. Nicole Watts and a group of other volunteers took note of the issue six years ago when they began to cook weekly meals for the refugee community. Three to four months into those efforts, the weekly program manifested into Hopeprint, a non-profit dedicated to helping the refugee community. Watts, the executive director, now lives in a house on Lilac Street in the Northside with a handful of other volunteers.  Two nights a week, they open their doors as hundreds of refugees dressed in garb from all over the world flood in to share a family-style meal.

Through sharing meals and conversation, the volunteers at Hopeprint use friendship and the sharing of knowledge to help refugees go from surviving to living. “Our mission is to empower resettled refugees to thrive. The idea behind this is that pretty much at 90 days they’re still surviving,” Watts says. “While resettlement agencies work very hard and it’s a very overwhelming job, there has to be more.”

“I want to make sure my family eats before I eat. If I get a college degree, I can show the younger generation, look, I didn’t have to be that girl that got married at 16 or 18.”

When poverty is at play, problems are constantly present. When living on the edge of crisis in an environment that is not only foreign to you but also skeptical of you, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. When the government funded agencies leave the picture after 90 days, it is up to the community at large to play a role in the flourishing of refugees. Organizations like MUCC and Hopeprint are essential in helping resettled refugees gather the resources and building blocks toward having the fullest life.

Sometimes, even with the help of volunteer organizations post-resettlement issues remain unsolved. In Utica, the Lees have yet to find a home for their family that fits both their needs and their budget.

written by Riley Bunch

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