In August 2014, Susan Hartman profiled Sadia Ambure in a New York Times article about Utica’s refugee population.
Nearly eight years later, Hartman has delivered a deeper look at Utica’s refugee and immigrant population in her new book, “City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town,” set for release Tuesday, June 7.
Those three newcomers: Ambure, a Somali Bantu refugee, Mersiha Omeragic, the owner of Yummilicious Cafe and Bakery and a Bosnian refugee, and Ali Sarhan, an Iraqi interpreter.
For years, Hartman would travel from outside New York City to Utica to observe and document the lives of Ambure, Omeragic, Sarhan and their loved ones.
“They got used to my scribbling notes as they went about their business,” she said. “And I would drive up from downstate when I felt something special was going on or I just had some time in my schedule.”
Hartman would attempt to blend into the background of the subjects’ home lives as she glimpsed a snippet of their realities.
“I was not overstaying,” she said. “And I tried to be sensitive to when families had enough talking and needed to get back to everything that they were doing.”
Hartman was able to make inroads in the Somali Bantu and Bosnian communities through local community leaders, who shared their stories. She also spent time at The Center, formerly the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, to meet sources and build relationships.
“So, it was a process of just kind of hanging around, wandering around, talking to people,” Hartman said. “That’s how I met the main characters. It did not happen absolutely right away, but pretty quickly. ”
In addition to the spotlight on the newcomers, Hartman spoke with firefighters, local officials, business owners and other community representatives. She finds Utica to be a very welcoming place.
“I just found that access was very easy,” Hartman said. “This is not true everywhere. It’s not true everywhere that there’s a mayor doing a weekly sweep with many heads of the city’s departments. ”
Hartman mostly has reported in New York City, and while she said it can be a friendly place, it’s no Utica. She found people were willing to speak with her and be frank about issues, like the Utica Fire Department’s initial failures to communicate fire safety to Somali Bantu refugees used to cooking on hibachis instead of gas stoves.
Hartman was no stranger to the Utica area prior to her work on the book; she was a student at Kirkland College in the 1970s. The city gave her a much different impression nearly 50 years ago.
“All of this is so different from what it was in the ’70s when I went to school nearby and it just seemed pretty much asleep,” Hartman said. “Storefronts were filled with food pantries and social services organizations. It just had very little vitality. ”
Now, there are spots of life throughout the city in new restaurants, coffee shops and bars, as well as the new downtown hospital and other downtown revitalization efforts.
“I think to the outsider who’s not used to Utica at all, when you arrive it just seems like a gray upstate city,” Hartman said. “You may not see any of the incredible sparks of life that people do living there and… as someone who’s visited so much, that I see.”
The optimism about Utica extends to many of the refugees who Hartman has spoken to.
“I think so many refugees feel this is a really good place,” she said. Of course, not everybody welcomes them, but on the other hand there’s acceptance. They’ve become part of the fabric of the city. ”
In addition to the book’s launch in June, Hartman is writing another New York Times story about Utica’s refugees and the meaning and home.
The refugees living in Utica have left an indelible mark on Hartman, who was quick to share her admiration for them.
“If you work so long on a story, there is obviously respect and affection for your subjects and in this case, also, I really did learn so much from these families about teamwork,” she said. “It just really impressed me, how they go forward – buy houses, start businesses, send kids to college – working to do this as a family. Sometimes each member putting themselves second. ”
Steve Howe is the city reporter for the Observer-Dispatch. Email him at email@example.com.