Review: “Refugee City” by Susan Hartmann

A number of writers have recently taken up a complex topic crucial to the current and sometimes violent national “conversation” about immigration: exploring the communities of new immigrants revitalizing the Rust Belt cities in the American heartland.

Cynthia Anderson’s touching 2019 novel, Home Now: How 6,000 Refugees Transformed an American City, took readers into the heart of the hardworking Somali community in Lewiston, Maine. Barrio America 2019: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City adds an academic perspective to understanding the revival of Little Village in Chicago and Oak Cliff in Dallas, led by AK Sandoval Strauss.

Jason DeParley’s film A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves provides a global view of refugee revenue flowing home, keeping the millions left behind. DeParle runs this by following an extended Filipino family he first met while at the Peace Corps three decades ago.

In “City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life in a Dying American City,” Susan Hartmann, who studied writing at Columbia and Yale, addresses this alluring and fitting topic.

Hartmann has spent years reporting on the unfolding lives of three main characters who have settled in Utica, New York: Sadia, a rebellious and spirited Somali teenager whose mother relies on her to Americanize her very quickly; Mersiha, Bosnian Opened a delicious bakery and catering hall – then entered the COVID-19 lockdown; and Ali, an Iraqi with traumatic war experiences, who nonetheless returned as a translator for US forces so that his salary could provide a nest egg for his family in Utica.

Hartmann presents us with 48 occasional chapters depicting events in their daily lives. This inventory of events documents, realistically, the many small obstacles—which often stem from bigotry, poverty, and cultural unfamiliarity—that thwart success, even when progress is taking place.

The chapters also include similar information about the characters’ friends, relatives, and neighbors. We meet in a class on how to go to the doctor (“Turn your head! Cough! Cover your right eye”) and see “Sudanese mother picks eye makeup with her daughter at Rite-Aid on Genesee.”

We are at the menus, the apartment addresses, where sweets (baklava, hormasica, and jabukovaca) are served at the feast banquet. The short chapters filled with short stories may have seemed like a solution to the narrative puzzle of humanizing the city of immigrants through their actions. But, though we soon confirm what we may assume all along—that they are ordinary people who live their lives vigorously, day in and day out—the reader may want more guidance than is on offer.

The book goes from a small event to a small event. At dinner, someone “helped himself to some salad and orzo with olives and almonds, and started eating.” It makes readers hungry, but it may leave some unsatisfied. There is an impressive breadth of reports, but it is not tamed in the service of methodological insight.

Everyday facts flow through us as ruins from the flood of cultures. The pure realization is that energetic young people of different faiths and backgrounds dedicate themselves to a process that reaches homogenization, as our commercial and consumer power transforms these diverse and admirable spirits into more of us – in the same deep problem.

“I feel completely new,” Sadia says, late in the book, as she learns her citizenship lessons.

The City of Refugees occupies a prominent place in the urban revitalization literature, and offers us few answers – perhaps few, in the current atmosphere of unsolvable risk – but there is much to consider.

Mark Kramer has worked as a writer-in-residence at Smith College at Boston University and the Nieman Program in Narrative Journalism at Harvard University. He has helped establish ongoing narrative journalism conferences in Boston, London, Amsterdam, and Bergen, Norway.

refugee city

by: Susan Hartmann.

publisher: Bacon Press, 241 pages, $27.95.

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