Sadia Ambure is relieved that it is summer. “I hate the snow,” Sadia, who is 16, said. “It hurts my skin. I’m like a snake — my face turns red, then ashy.”
Harsh winters have been one of the challenges of living in this old manufacturing city in upstate New York for Sadia and her family, members of the Somali Bantu tribe. They arrived here from a Kenyan refugee camp almost a decade ago after a stint in St. Louis. “My body is trying to get used to America,” she said.
Her mother, Zahara Hassan, 38, who has 11 children, is just now learning to read and write. Sadia, a high school junior, is perhaps the most assimilated: She is obsessed with the television show “Game of Thrones.”
“The writer has the wildest imagination,” she said. “How could somebody be that good?”
She hopes to create her own TV show someday. “I want somebody to remember me,” she said.
Sadia’s family belongs to the Mudey clan and over 100 extended family members live within blocks of one another. Family ties are everything, yet Sadia and her sisters have stitched together American and Somali Bantu identities. She keeps Steve Madden boots in her school locker to wear under skirts that were ordered from Somali Bantu catalogs. She covets Subway sandwiches — and occasionally hides one in the refrigerator — but is devoted to her mother’s goat stew. She wants to try her hand at modeling, but so far her mother, who has the final word on everything — even a trip to the movies — has said no.
This might seem like an unexpected corner of America to plant roots for Somali Bantus who have fled persecution, but in fact they are part of a remarkable story: the evolution of Utica into a city of refugees. A large concentration of immigrants who have come here seeking sanctuary, including Vietnamese, Bosnians and Burmese, have transformed this once-fading industrial town.
Though precise numbers are hard to come by, perhaps as many as one-fourth of Utica’s population of 62,000 is made up of refugee families, according to Shelly Callahan, executive director of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, a nonprofit group that has helped to resettle thousands of refugees for 35 years. The immigrants have been an economic engine for the city, starting small businesses, buying and renovating down-at-the-heels houses and injecting a sense of vitality to forlorn city streets.
“We’re like every other upstate city,” said Anthony J. Picente Jr., the executive of Oneida County, which includes Utica. “Our infrastructure is old. Our housing stock is old. But the refugees have renovated and revitalized whole neighborhoods.”
Utica became a refugee magnet mostly by accident. In the 1970s, a local woman, Roberta Douglas, became concerned about the treatment of Amerasian children in Vietnam. So with the help of Catholic Charities in Syracuse, she started resettling Amerasians and later, working with others, established the Center for Refugees.
The center, which provides assistance with housing, employment, cultural orientation and language skills, works with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the federal government to determine which refugee groups will be resettled in Utica. People are granted refugee status generally because they are fleeing persecution for a variety of reasons, including race and religion.
The refugees now carving out new lives are just the latest surge of immigrants to the city. At the turn of the century, Italian, German, Polish and Irish immigrants were drawn to Utica’s mills and many started their own businesses.
“My grandfather was the first gentleman to walk up and down the streets of Utica yelling, ‘Lemon ices!’ ” said Anthony Amodio, 48, the food and beverage manager at the Radisson Hotel Utica Center. Later, his grandfather opened a salumeria.
Syrian and Lebanese immigrants arrived around the same time and eventually opened dry goods stores and groceries.
General Electric; Univac, a computer manufacturer; and Griffiss Air Force Base provided thousands of jobs after the mills closed in the 1950s. But in a narrative familiar across upstate New York, the manufacturing plants started downsizing before eventually closing — the Air Force base also closed — and the city fell into a steep decline. The population, which stood at 100,000 in 1960, plunged and Genesee, the city’s gracious main street, filled with empty storefronts.
Residents still recall a popular bumper sticker: “Last one out of Utica, please turn out the lights.”
“The refugees stemmed the decline,” Ms. Callahan said. “They have a great work ethic, and are willing to take jobs that native-born folks don’t want.”
These days, many work as dishwashers, groundskeepers, janitors and housekeepers at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y., while others have found work at a Chobani yogurt factory in New Berlin, N.Y, owned by a Turkish immigrant.
The Bosnians, who started arriving in the early 1990s during the Balkan conflict and are Utica’s largest refugee community, have been arguably the most successful group. They have bought and renovated hundreds of run-down houses, started construction firms, opened restaurants and built a soaring mosque.
“All of us had everything,” Sefik Badnjevic, 58, a retired machinist, said, referring to the many middle-class lives uprooted by war. “We are trying to make what we lost.”
Two refugee groups that have been in Utica for more than a generation have also done well: The Vietnamese have opened restaurants and food stores, while Russians who escaped religious persecution in the former Soviet Union have opened furniture stores and car dealerships.
For more recent arrivals, many of whom were living in refugee camps, “the learning curve has been longer, slower,” Ms. Callahan said.
Yet the Karen, a persecuted ethnic group from the Karen state in southeastern Burma who started arriving in Utica a decade ago, have established a foothold, opening markets and buying homes.
The Somali Bantus, however, have had a tougher time adapting. For many, there is a deep sense of dislocation.
They were brought to Somalia as slaves from other African countries by Arab slave traders centuries ago. A civil war forced them to flee in the early 1990s to crowded Kenyan refugee camps.
In 2003, 61 Somali Bantus were resettled in Utica; the community has since grown to about 2,000.
“The teachers send home letters about the kids, but the parents can’t read them,” said Mohamed Ganiso, 33, the director of the Somali Bantu Association of Central New York in Utica. “If they apply for a job, they’re told to go online, but they can’t.”
Mr. Ganiso, who works as a machine operator at Chobani, estimated that unemployment in the Somali Bantu community runs about 50 percent.
But for the Bantus, there is still a sense of accomplishment — and of possibilities.
Sadia admires her mother’s strength and independence. “She raised us all by herself,” the daughter said.
It has not been easy. Ms. Hassan was a nursing home aide for six years, then worked at the Chobani factory for a year. Despite the 12-hour factory shifts, she relished the job, especially the camaraderie. “We had two families — our Chobani family and our home family,” Ms. Hassan said.
She quit after her daughter Rahama was born last September, not wanting to be away from home for such long stretches. But Ms. Hassan misses the work and the paycheck. “We felt rich,” Sadia said.
She and her mother are close and often banter. “I have a secret boyfriend,” Sadia told her mother recently. “Shame on you!” Ms. Hassan shot back, knowing her daughter was joking. But she was worried: There is no dating in Somali Bantu culture, unless a couple are engaged.
But a year ago, Sadia was angry with her family. “If I want to become a model, they won’t let me,” she said. “If I want to go to Syracuse University, they won’t let me.”
She stopped speaking to her mother and started having problems at school. Sadia’s principal called her into his office.
“He made me understand,” she said. “ ‘Nobody’s ever going to love you better than your mom.’ ”
Still, the moments of challenge and tension pale compared with what the family left behind.
During the 12 years her family spent in a refugee camp, “we slept on the floor,” Ms. Hassan, said, as she sat in the living room of her house, a former drug rehabilitation center she bought in 2010 for $55,000.
Rations were meager at the camp. “Dried corn, beans — no rice, a little oil,” she said. Armed members of the Turkana, a seminomadic Kenyan tribe, often stole food and clothing at night. Women going into the forest alone for firewood risked being raped.
Now in their own yard, Ms. Hassan’s daughter Mana Abdika Dir Mudey, 20, a student at Mohawk Valley Community College who is planning to become a nurse, hung freshly washed sheets on a line. In the kitchen, Ms. Hassan’s mother, Halima Mudey, 58, cooked stew.
Looking around, Ms. Hassan said simply, “Here, we have everything.”