By WRILEY NELSON
The Otsego Refugee Resettlement Coalition recently announced its certification as a Private Sponsor Group with the Welcome Corps Program. On April 24, the ORRC was informed that it has been matched with a refugee family which will be arriving in one or two months.
“This country was built on immigrants,” said Debra Marcus, one of the founders of the coalition. “We felt sure that this community would welcome new families and be a wonderful place for a new generation that sees America as a land of hope.”
According to a release, the process took far longer than volunteers expected. The original coalition, founded in 2016, was reluctantly disbanded in 2017 after the federal government drastically reduced the national refugee intake. It was re-founded in 2021 and has since grown to include more than 90 volunteers. The new federal Welcome Corps Program is a collaborative effort between the State Department and the Department of Health and Human Services and allows volunteer councils to take the lead in welcoming refugees. It is modeled on the federal government’s strategy for Ukrainian refugees, with the difference that Welcome Corps migrants are expected to become permanent citizens.
“We found that the work the coalition had been doing for the last 18 months was in sync with what was required by Welcome Corps,” Marcus continued. “We have committees on housing, employment, healthcare, culture, education—including English as a second language—transportation and fundraising. Those were all essential to the application process. We heard that Welcome Corps said our application was one of the best in New York State!”
In an e-mail to ORRC members, Marcus said that a family of five will be selected in the next few weeks. It is likely they will hail from sub-Saharan Africa. The coalition is looking for volunteers who speak Swahili, Arabic (East African dialects specifically), Kiswahili, Lingala, Kibembe, Somali, or several other languages.
ORRC is motivated by humanitarian concerns, but members repeatedly noted that Otsego County stands to gain significant economic and cultural advantages from welcoming refugees.
“Clearly, there’s a humanitarian concern,” said Coalition Communication Chair Mark Wolff. “But the area is also suffering from a catastrophic trickle-down effect from population decline. A lot of these counties, towns and villages are losing their tax base, they’re losing property owners, they’re losing businesses. Many of the school districts, of course, are in serious danger from falling enrollment and tax receipts.”
An infusion of hardworking, engaged new community members could be just what the doctor ordered.
“These people are committed. They work hard. They are survivors,” Wolff said. “Many of them have been waiting in camps for 10 or more years. They’ve done so much paperwork to get through the process. They have the grit and dedication.”
The ORRC has taken inspiration from the almost unbelievable success of The Center in Utica. The Center, formerly known as the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, played a critical role in turning around a city that was once a byword for post-industrial collapse.
Utica was a major industrial and transportation hub in the early 20th century. The Sunbelt migration and de-industrialization hit it as hard as any Rust Belt city; Utica’s population declined from over 100,000 in 1930 to 60,000 in 2000. That kind of decline can destroy a city permanently. The feedback loop of departing employers, declining property values, collapsing revenues and economic activity, service cuts, and further flight becomes a death spiral that has become familiar to many American cities. By the 1980s and 1990s, Utica had a new nickname: “the city God forgot.” If you Google that phrase, Utica will come up.
In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, however, a group of citizens volunteered and organized to stop the bleeding by importing a new population. The city absorbed a great influx of refugees, notably Bosnians during the Yugoslav Wars and Burmese and Karen following upheaval in Myanmar. According to Syracuse.com, The Center has helped resettle more than 17,000 people since 1979. One in five Uticans is a refugee or the child of a refugee. Over 40 languages are spoken in the city. The population transfusion rejuvenated Utica economically and culturally. Entire communities of small business owners, workers, students, and engaged citizens rose up in the ashes of a fallen industrial economy.
At present, only one refugee family is in the works in Otsego County, but many coalition and community members have a larger vision.
“We want to welcome refugees, but ultimately, they’re going to want a community of their own,” Wolff said. “We want to create space for a real, self-sustaining immigrant community that’s able to support itself economically and socially, and is then able to enrich our surrounding communities in a way that only these truly impressive, committed people can.”
“At present, we’re really focusing on Oneonta because it has the housing, the transportation, the jobs, the shopping and the services for brand-new immigrants,” Wolff concluded. “We’re actively looking for more housing elsewhere and would like to ask community members with available housing to consider offering it below market value. We’re also asking for any kind of support or volunteering that people can provide.”
For more information or to volunteer, visit https://www.refugeotsego.org/.