December 5, 2023

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‘They saved this town’: Refugees poured into Utica and cleared the rust from a dying industrial city

Htay Oo Win has a lot of maps taped to the walls of his grocery store in Utica. He’s always been interested in politics and world affairs, he explained, and once dreamed of starting a newspaper in Burma. That’s where he’s from, he said, and laid a finger over the Bay of Bengal, just west of his country.

He fled Burma, now Myanmar, to Thailand when the government cracked down on the pro-democracy movement there in the early 2000s, then escaped from being shunted back to Myanmar’s border by boarding a plane with his family as a refugee, destined for upstate New York.

They arrived on May 5, 2003.

Oo Win is just one of thousands of refugees who have been ushered into Utica by the city’s forty-year-old resettlement agency. He’s one of the voices featured in a new documentary by New York filmmakers, “Utica: The Last Refuge,” to be screened in Cazenovia on June 3. The film follows one Sudanese family’s arrival and acclimatization to Utica, and maps how a steady flow of incoming refugees over four decades has cleaned up the gutted rust belt city.

“Utica? Are you kidding me?” said director Loch Phillipps, when his film partner Adam Bedient pitched that city as the potential star for a film about resettlement programs. Phillipps knew the area from his days as a student at Hamilton College. When he graduated in 1983, “Utica was at its low point,” he said.

But he made the trip from his home in Brooklyn to check out the city’s resettlement center, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR). There, on the floor, was a poster-size blow-up of a 2005 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) magazine cover devoted to Utica, “The town that loves refugees.”

It’s an oft-repeated accolade. Utica resettled 2,600 refugees from 2010 to 2020, and The Center has helped resettle over 17,000 since 1979. Today, one in five Uticans is a refugee or child of a refugee, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute. Over 40 languages are spoken in the public schools. Downtown is a checkerboard of international restaurants, churches, community centers and businesses.

“It’s worked,” said David Chanatry, the film’s producer and a professor of journalism at Utica University. “The program … has been to the benefit of the refugees and it’s been to the benefit of a city that’s become their home.”

The Center

The Center on Bleeker Street in Utica.

On a regular day at the MVRCR, retooled as “The Center” in 2018, hundreds of refugees will flow through the building for English language lessons, citizenship paperwork guidance, legal consultation or even to make use of driver’s test simulator — a steering wheel and pedals hooked up to a computer monitor.

The Center is a “one-stop shop,” said Dzevad Racic, director of refugee resettlement.

A team of about 35 people, mostly former refugees, keep this place running. The Center is the crucial last stop for refugees sent by the U.S. government and the UNHCR to Utica, after passing a detailed application process, background check and medical review.

Refugees can wait for years in a camp in an asylum country, having fled persecution, natural disasters or violence. Some are stateless and have no legal home. Most will be sent back to their country of origin or gain status in the asylum country.

Of the UNHCR’s estimated 82 million refugees, internally displaced and asylum-seekers worldwide, less than one percent are resettled elsewhere.

“You’re more likely to hit the lotto,” said Shelly Callahan, The Center’s director. That’s where she comes in.

Callahan’s team is usually busy. They worked through the winter holidays to house incoming Afghan evacuees, and much of the staff remains unofficially on-call for texts and late night door-knocks from refugee families. Callahan urges the staff to set boundaries for their off-hours, but she herself is almost constantly plugged in to the news when she’s off the clock.

Things have been fluctuating wildly since Donald Trump took office, and lowered the nation’s refugee cap from 85,000 in 2016 to 15,000 in 2021. The Biden White House raised that cap to 62,500, but the resettlement infrastructure was so decimated from the previous four years that the U.S. only settled 11,411 people in that last year.

“You can’t snap your fingers and have that back,” said Callahan. “The whole industry has to regrow, has to regroup.”

Shelly Callahan Utica

Shelly Callahan, director of The Center refugee resettlement agency in Utica, scrolls through emails on a busy Tuesday afternoon.

Down the hall from Callahan’s office in The Center, immigration and citizenship coordinator Tatjana Kulacic read through the list of meetings she had jotted in black ink on a big paper calendar on her desk.

“So it was Burmese guy, Somali guy, Afghani guys, tons of phone calls, paperwork for some Ukrainians as well. It’s never boring here,” she said, laughing.

Kulacic landed in Maryland as a refugee from former Yugoslavia in 1998 and moved to Utica two years later. She’s worked at The Center since then.

Last weekend she drove to Boston to see her son graduate with a master’s degree in international relations. She brought a good friends from Utica to the ceremony, a woman who had taught him how to fly fish in New York’s riverways.

He’s interested in diplomacy in the Balkans, said Kulacic. He was just two when she carried him from Yugoslavia to the U.S.

She stepped out into the hallway to say hello to a young central African woman in a headscarf. Kulacic knows she could probably get a higher paid job elsewhere but isn’t interested.

In a more homogenous place, “I would be like, ‘woah, this is so boring,’” she said.

When refugee families first land in the U.S., they cost taxpayers in public education, Medicaid and temporary assistance, according to a 2000 study on the impacts of refugees in Utica and Oneida County by Hamilton College economics professor Paul Hagstrom.

But after seven years, they start contributing to the economy. After 13 years, they contribute enough to make up those initial costs.

That breaking even point is delayed, however, as housing prices go up, something Callahan at The Center has been watching carefully over the past few years as Utica’s economy rebounds.

Most refugees are sent to areas where cost of living is low, said Phillipps, the documentary director. He’s working on another film right now about Burmese and Afghan refugee resettlement in Indiana, Pennsylvania, birthplace of film star Jimmy Stewart.

“There’s a big passion gap on this issue,” said Phillipps. “The minority of people in this country who are against refugee resettlement are super loud.”

“This is a really industrious population that figures out how to fix places up and make the community better,” he said.

“They saved this town.”

Pyait Kyaw just opened up a new restaurant, Nanabi, downtown. The economy is looking up, he said, but that’s not the only reason why he thought Utica would be a good place to open up an Asian fusion restaurant.

“This whole city is built from immigrants,” said Kyaw. “Because Utica’s diverse, there’s so many different foods. So the people will say ‘Ok yes, I’ll try this, I’ll try that.’”

Utica Nanabi

Co-owners Hieu Phung (left) and Pyait Kyaw stand outside their brand new restaurant, “Nanabi” in downtown Utica. “We grew up together in high school,” said Kyaw. “When you’re in Proctor (High School), you hang out with different people, you know, different cultures, you learn a lot. You know, that’s how you be more open-minded.”

Kyaw moved to the U.S. when he was 7 years old as a refugee from Burma. Burmese made up a large share of the most recent waves of immigrants into Utica in the 2000s and 2010s.

The other owners of the restaurant are from Cambodia and Vietnam. One is a guy Kyaw met in a refugee camp in Thailand when they were children, then again when they both ended up by chance at Utica’s Proctor High School.

Most of Golden Burma Asian Market owner Oo Win’s kids are around Kyaw’s age. They grew up in the Utica school system and eventually dispersed around upstate. One daughter is in Albany, another is in university in Buffalo.

Education was important to him, he said. For Muslim minority non-Buddhists like himself, it was hard to get access to schooling in Burma without paying a lot of money, which he didn’t have. He was barred from learning technical skills.

The language barrier has been hard here for him. Reading and writing is easy, he said, but verbal is trickier. In the beginning, he was working all the time in restaurants and at Turning Stone Casino.

He’s looking towards retirement now, and might move somewhere else. Still, he’s firm on one thing. In Utica, for refugees — “it’s a paradise.”

“Utica: The Last Refuge” will be screened at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 3 in the Catherine Cummings Theatre in Cazenovia at 16 Lincklaen Street. The screening is sponsored by the Cazenovia Forum and Cazenovia Welcomes Refugees. For more information about the film, go to For more information about the screening, go to

Reporter Johnathan Croyle contributed to this report.

Jules Struck writes about life and culture in and around Syracuse. Contact her anytime at [email protected] or on Instagram at julesstruck.journo.