City of Refugees

The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life into a Dying American Town

Narrator Samara Naeymi
A gripping portrait of refugees who forged a new life in the Rust Belt, the deep roots they’ve formed in their community, and their role in shaping its culture and prosperity.
 
"This is an American tale that everyone should read. . . . The storytelling is so intimate and the characters feel so deeply real that you will know them like neighbors."—Jake Halpern, author of Welcome to the New World

War, persecution, natural disasters, and climate change continue to drive millions around the world from their homes. In this “tender, intimate, and important book—a carefully reported rebuttal to the xenophobic narratives that define so much of modern American politics” (Sarah Stillman, staff writer, The New Yorker), journalist Susan Hartman follows 3 refugees over 8 years and tells the story of how they built new lives in the old manufacturing town of Utica, New York. Sadia, a Somali Bantu teenager, rebels against her mother; Ali, an Iraqi interpreter, creates a home with an American woman but is haunted by war; and Mersiha, a Bosnian baker, gambles everything to open a café.
 
Along the way, Hartman “illuminates the humanity of these outsiders while demonstrating the crucial role immigrants play in the economy—and the soul—of the nation" (Los Angeles Times). The 3 newcomers are part of an extraordinary migration over the past 4 decades; thousands fleeing war and persecution have transformed Utica, opening small businesses, fixing up abandoned houses, and adding a spark of vitality to forlorn city streets. Utica is not alone.  Other Rust Belt cities—including Buffalo, Dayton, and Detroit—have also welcomed refugees, hoping to jump-start their economies and attract a younger population.
 
City of Refugees is a complex and poignant story of a small city but also of America—a country whose promise of safe harbor and opportunity is knotty and incomplete, but undeniably alive.
"Insightful and fascinating . . . will hone and reshape the reader's understanding of the impact of refugees on American society."
Booklist

"Hartman draws an intimate and captivating portrait of the struggle to build new lives while holding on to old values. Readers will gain vital insight into the immigrant experience in America."
Publishers Weekly

"Susan Hartman illuminates the humanity of these outsiders while demonstrating the crucial role immigrants play in the economy—and the soul—of the nation."
—Stuart Miller, Los Angeles Times

“With a keen eye for detail and a lot of heart, Hartman follows three refugees for eight years… Hartman crafts a nuanced narrative about each creating a new life in a new country while simultaneously holding onto memories of home and not losing their identity. The beauty of City of Refugees is that it tackles all the bad things that happen to these people while also reveling in their dreams and growth.”
—Gabino Iglesias, San Francisco Chronicle

“[A]n engaging, captivating book about the stories of three refugees and their families… Utica is unquestionably better off because of the thousands of refugees and their families that have resettled there, and as Hartman's book makes clear in their own words, so are they.”
—Daniel P. Horan, National Catholic Reporter

"A gripping, fast-moving immersion into the lives of three bright new lights in a once fading town, City of Refugees is a meticulous and timely work of journalism."
—Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You

"This is an American tale that everyone should read—the story of three refugees who forged a new life in the Rust Belt. Hartman's journalistic dedication is nothing short of astounding. She spent eight years following her subjects, and it shows. The storytelling is so intimate and the characters feel so deeply real that you will know them like neighbors. Sadia, who is a teenage girl when the book begins, is like the heroine of a great young adult novel. You will root for her on every page, and by the end, you will not be able to wall off your heart from her hopes and dreams."
—Jake Halpern, author of Welcome to the New World

"Susan Hartman's City of Refugees is storytelling at its very best. Her detailed portrait of the ordinary lives of a few extraordinary people and their community gives us an utterly compelling glimpse into the heart and soul of the United States of America in the twenty-first century."
—Jenny McPhee, author and translator

"What a wonderful book! In this remarkably nuanced portrait of three refugees, Susan Hartman manages a skillful end run around the topic's usual politicized discourse. Instead, she concentrates on her subjects' current and past experiences, including religious persecutions, wars, physical danger, and their ambitions, confusions, joys, and fears."
—Lis Harris, author of In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family

"City of Refugees is a tender, intimate, and important book—a carefully reported rebuttal to the xenophobic narratives that define so much of modern American politics and a gripping portrait of what three different refugees have offered the city of Utica through their labors of love."
—Sarah Stillman, staff writer, The New Yorker

"Susan Hartman has written a vital book about the refugee experience in America. With spare and direct prose, she captures the daily joys and heartaches of three refugee families. This is a story of the tenacity of family bonds and the underappreciated contributions of refugees to the vitality of American life. I loved every single page."
—Jen Percy, author of Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier's Return from War
© Glenmar Studio
Susan Hartman has written about immigrant communities for over 20 years. Her cover stories and profiles have appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday. The author of two books of poetry, she was educated at Kirkland College and received an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she now teaches. She lives outside New York City with her husband; they have 2 grown children. View titles by Susan Hartman
Author’s Note

Part I: LANDINGS

1. Desire
2. Fire
3. The Fight
4. Truce
5. The Green Onion
6. Vows
7. The Gift
8. The Cake Boss
9. In Bloom
10. The Wedding
11. With Strangers
12. Shadow
13. In Bosnia

Part II: MY UTICA

14. The Strike Force
15. Graduation
16. Confessions of a Teacher
17. Ismar’s Dream
18. The Ban
19. The Drone
20. August
21. Coming Home
22. The New Apartment
23. Lofts
24. Mersiha Leaps
25. Bomb Threat
26. The Rutger Restaurant
27. Nineteen
28. Designing a House
29. The Crossing
30. Deployed
31. The Key
32. Who Will Help You?

Part III: NEW AMERICANS

33. They Don’t Talk About It
34. On the Brink
35. Solo
36. Ramadan, 2019
37. The Mayor’s Sweep
38. Sadia’s List
39. The Visit
40. Renovating
41. The Baby Shower
42. Their Generation
43. Six Months
44. His Text
45. On the Run
46. On Wings
47. The Opening
48. Karma

EPILOGUE
We Rallied

About the Process
Acknowledgments
Notes
Index

About

A gripping portrait of refugees who forged a new life in the Rust Belt, the deep roots they’ve formed in their community, and their role in shaping its culture and prosperity.
 
"This is an American tale that everyone should read. . . . The storytelling is so intimate and the characters feel so deeply real that you will know them like neighbors."—Jake Halpern, author of Welcome to the New World

War, persecution, natural disasters, and climate change continue to drive millions around the world from their homes. In this “tender, intimate, and important book—a carefully reported rebuttal to the xenophobic narratives that define so much of modern American politics” (Sarah Stillman, staff writer, The New Yorker), journalist Susan Hartman follows 3 refugees over 8 years and tells the story of how they built new lives in the old manufacturing town of Utica, New York. Sadia, a Somali Bantu teenager, rebels against her mother; Ali, an Iraqi interpreter, creates a home with an American woman but is haunted by war; and Mersiha, a Bosnian baker, gambles everything to open a café.
 
Along the way, Hartman “illuminates the humanity of these outsiders while demonstrating the crucial role immigrants play in the economy—and the soul—of the nation" (Los Angeles Times). The 3 newcomers are part of an extraordinary migration over the past 4 decades; thousands fleeing war and persecution have transformed Utica, opening small businesses, fixing up abandoned houses, and adding a spark of vitality to forlorn city streets. Utica is not alone.  Other Rust Belt cities—including Buffalo, Dayton, and Detroit—have also welcomed refugees, hoping to jump-start their economies and attract a younger population.
 
City of Refugees is a complex and poignant story of a small city but also of America—a country whose promise of safe harbor and opportunity is knotty and incomplete, but undeniably alive.

Praise

"Insightful and fascinating . . . will hone and reshape the reader's understanding of the impact of refugees on American society."
Booklist

"Hartman draws an intimate and captivating portrait of the struggle to build new lives while holding on to old values. Readers will gain vital insight into the immigrant experience in America."
Publishers Weekly

"Susan Hartman illuminates the humanity of these outsiders while demonstrating the crucial role immigrants play in the economy—and the soul—of the nation."
—Stuart Miller, Los Angeles Times

“With a keen eye for detail and a lot of heart, Hartman follows three refugees for eight years… Hartman crafts a nuanced narrative about each creating a new life in a new country while simultaneously holding onto memories of home and not losing their identity. The beauty of City of Refugees is that it tackles all the bad things that happen to these people while also reveling in their dreams and growth.”
—Gabino Iglesias, San Francisco Chronicle

“[A]n engaging, captivating book about the stories of three refugees and their families… Utica is unquestionably better off because of the thousands of refugees and their families that have resettled there, and as Hartman's book makes clear in their own words, so are they.”
—Daniel P. Horan, National Catholic Reporter

"A gripping, fast-moving immersion into the lives of three bright new lights in a once fading town, City of Refugees is a meticulous and timely work of journalism."
—Dina Nayeri, author of The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You

"This is an American tale that everyone should read—the story of three refugees who forged a new life in the Rust Belt. Hartman's journalistic dedication is nothing short of astounding. She spent eight years following her subjects, and it shows. The storytelling is so intimate and the characters feel so deeply real that you will know them like neighbors. Sadia, who is a teenage girl when the book begins, is like the heroine of a great young adult novel. You will root for her on every page, and by the end, you will not be able to wall off your heart from her hopes and dreams."
—Jake Halpern, author of Welcome to the New World

"Susan Hartman's City of Refugees is storytelling at its very best. Her detailed portrait of the ordinary lives of a few extraordinary people and their community gives us an utterly compelling glimpse into the heart and soul of the United States of America in the twenty-first century."
—Jenny McPhee, author and translator

"What a wonderful book! In this remarkably nuanced portrait of three refugees, Susan Hartman manages a skillful end run around the topic's usual politicized discourse. Instead, she concentrates on her subjects' current and past experiences, including religious persecutions, wars, physical danger, and their ambitions, confusions, joys, and fears."
—Lis Harris, author of In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family

"City of Refugees is a tender, intimate, and important book—a carefully reported rebuttal to the xenophobic narratives that define so much of modern American politics and a gripping portrait of what three different refugees have offered the city of Utica through their labors of love."
—Sarah Stillman, staff writer, The New Yorker

"Susan Hartman has written a vital book about the refugee experience in America. With spare and direct prose, she captures the daily joys and heartaches of three refugee families. This is a story of the tenacity of family bonds and the underappreciated contributions of refugees to the vitality of American life. I loved every single page."
—Jen Percy, author of Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier's Return from War

Author

© Glenmar Studio
Susan Hartman has written about immigrant communities for over 20 years. Her cover stories and profiles have appeared in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday. The author of two books of poetry, she was educated at Kirkland College and received an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she now teaches. She lives outside New York City with her husband; they have 2 grown children. View titles by Susan Hartman

Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Part I: LANDINGS

1. Desire
2. Fire
3. The Fight
4. Truce
5. The Green Onion
6. Vows
7. The Gift
8. The Cake Boss
9. In Bloom
10. The Wedding
11. With Strangers
12. Shadow
13. In Bosnia

Part II: MY UTICA

14. The Strike Force
15. Graduation
16. Confessions of a Teacher
17. Ismar’s Dream
18. The Ban
19. The Drone
20. August
21. Coming Home
22. The New Apartment
23. Lofts
24. Mersiha Leaps
25. Bomb Threat
26. The Rutger Restaurant
27. Nineteen
28. Designing a House
29. The Crossing
30. Deployed
31. The Key
32. Who Will Help You?

Part III: NEW AMERICANS

33. They Don’t Talk About It
34. On the Brink
35. Solo
36. Ramadan, 2019
37. The Mayor’s Sweep
38. Sadia’s List
39. The Visit
40. Renovating
41. The Baby Shower
42. Their Generation
43. Six Months
44. His Text
45. On the Run
46. On Wings
47. The Opening
48. Karma

EPILOGUE
We Rallied

About the Process
Acknowledgments
Notes
Index