Monday, August 27, 2007

VOANEWS: Utica, New York home to Growing Refugee Population

The loss of manufacturing jobs in the northeastern U.S. state of New York led to an economic decline in the 1970s. But war in Vietnam, and two decades later in the Balkans, as well as continued strife in Burma and Africa have helped change the face of one central New York community. VOA's Kane Farabaugh visited the town of Utica, which has welcomed an influx of refugees from around the world.

Utica's prosperity disappeared two to three decades ago
Prosperity left Utica, New York several decades ago. Once-mighty factories are now in ruin, reminders of a faded glory.

The hum of industry and people reached its peak in 1960, when the population grew to more than 100,000 people.

Peter Vogelaar from the Mowhawk Valley Refugee Resource Center did not live here then. He arrived more than three decades later, when the population stood at little more than 60,000. "It's the rust belt. You know, a lot of light manufacturing. There was a closing of a military base just north of Utica and Rome, that lost around 30,000 jobs. A lot of the jobs were either moving south or overseas."

But as jobs headed one way, refugees began to arrive in the opposite direction. The phenomenon grew in the 1990s, creating a mutually beneficial relationship between a community starving for improvement, and refugees looking for a new start.

"There was a realization that, 'Hey, this is actually a good thing for us,' as a community," Vogelaar said.

Utica is now home to roughly 5,000 refugees who fled the conflict in the Balkans in the mid-1990s. They make up almost 10 percent of Utica's current population, and have transformed derelict neighborhoods into thriving communities.

When the Balkan conflict ended in the late 1990s, the number of new Bosnians arriving in Utica dwindled.

But that did not stop the flow of other refugees.

The Mohawk Valley Refugee Resource Center is the main organization helping refugees resettle here. Center staff members provide a variety of services, including guidance through the difficult experience of living and working in a foreign country.

English lessons at the Refugee Resource Center are as important, and as busy, as ever.

Most of the classes are now made up of African and Burmese students looking to gain the language skills necessary to land a good job.

Mohamud Hussein Mohammed is one such student. He fled famine and fighting in Somalia in 1993, and resettled in the southern state of Texas before moving to Utica last year. He has a family of six, and prefers living in Utica because it is closer to his extended family, and closer to living the American dream.

"It's easier to find a job. For job it's easy, but still I didn't find it easy for buying. If you have money you can buy a house. When you make money, when you work hard and very good, you can make money and buy a house."

Home ownership in Utica is within reach for many refugees. The City of Utica and other landowners are happy to sell abandoned and derelict homes that can be put back on the tax rolls.

Much of the remodeling and home construction in the area can be attributed to the refugee population.

Vogelaar often hears from people his agency has helped through the years. Many are now employed, and have a new a sense of self-pride reflected in the improvements not just to the homes of the area, but the community. "The resilience of the human spirit is amazing, and is demonstrated every single day among the refugees."

For the most part, it has been a happy marriage between Utica and its refugee population. People who suffered through hardship and bloodshed have given new life to a city that suffered cultural and economic decline.

Friday, August 17, 2007

VOANEWS: Furniture Manufacturer Employs Multi-Cultural Workforce

The Balkan conflict, the strife in Sudan, and ongoing oppression in Burma are just some of the factors that have forced people to flee their homes and resettle in the northeastern state of New York. But language and cultural barriers make finding work a difficult prospect for some. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, one local furniture plant embraces the refugee community, and now employs a workforce dubbed a "mini-United Nations."

When Mehudin Krdzic was a young boy in Bosnia, he says Serbian forces moved his family from their farm into the town center of Srebrenica. He recalls what he saw with horror. "Thousands of people killed. Bodies all over the road on top of each other. Massacre. Bottom line, I saw the massacre."

What Marka Bosso knew about hardship before it came to his village in southern Sudan, he says he learned from watching movies. As conflict erupted around them, Bosso and his family fled to Egypt. "The real life is different from the movies."

Lai Nguyn is the son of an American service member and his war-time liaison with a Vietnamese woman. Nguyn has never met his father, and endured years of ridicule and isolation in Vietnam. "We feel like we're lost. That's how I feel -- I not belong here."

Though terrible, their stories of childhood cut short are not unique on the floor of Stickley Furniture near Syracuse, New York.

Out of a workforce of more than 1,000, several hundred employees are immigrants. They all work for Aminy Audi who owns the company with her husband. Originally from Lebanon, she left just before her country erupted into civil war in the 1970s. She lost her brother in the fighting.

"Part of my human experience is to look at the entire world as one small place where, hopefully, all people can coexist and there is an equal opportunity for all."

This part of New York state, between the cities of Utica and Syracuse, is home to tens of thousands of refugees from all over the world. It is a welcome and attractive area for refugees like Krdzic, who looked for a quiet place to live, far away from the conflicts they have fled. "My cousin lived here since 1996, and he sponsored us. He called us and told us that this is a good place to live, you know the climate is pretty much similar as it is in Bosnia and that's why we chose Syracuse."

Stickley is one of the top employers for refugees seeking work in the area. It is a business that has managed to survive the economic decline created by the loss of the manufacturing industry in the area. Stickley credits part of its survival to its workforce.

Stickley Furniture’s owner, Aminy Audi explains. "We started working with the refugee resettlement program and as a result, we have a lot of people who represent 36 nationalities here who are thrilled to be given an opportunity, to have a door being opened for them. Very hardworking people, very committed people, and many of them have been with us for many years."

There are few political or cultural boundaries on the factory floor. Serbians work side by side with Bosnians, as do Ethiopians and Somalis, Vietnamese and Chinese.

"We have to remember that those people, the refugees, have been through so much in their life. They've left countries, they've been devastated by war... So if we can create an environment that provides another opportunity for them, they pay their own way. They basically work hard, and we pay them for their hard work."

Some of the employees feel the opportunity to work here has done more than just make a difference -- it has empowered them. When Stickley opened a plant in Vietnam several years ago, Nguyn was able to return to his country, this time as an adult, and as an American. "They give me a chance to go to Vietnam, come back to my country. And I'm very proud. I go over there and I am so happy. People respect me."

For Mark Bosso, Syracuse is now home, and Stickley is a job he would like to keep for a lifetime. "It was my first job, and it looks like it's going to be my last job."

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Reflections on Korea: Part 1

"Korea is a peninsula divided. Two nations, yet one people separated by history, ideology, and the demilitarized zone. It is within this zone that a fragile armistice endures the test of time and change in a standoff that is neither piece nor war. It is a place where servicemembers and civilians alike have sacrificed their lives to maintain a peace so thousands may live."

I wrote that piece as part of a script for a spot promotion on a documentary I helped produce with the American Forces Korea Network (AFKN) in Seoul. It was my first year on the peninsula and my first introduction into the complex division between the Korean people.

I was part of a team of reporters stationed in Seoul for AFKN, and each day, out of naivite, we would search the Associated Press wires for news that North Korea had advanced or provoked checkpoints at the worlds most heavily guarded border. None of us really knew the enemy or the enemies motives. We just knew that they existed, and that they were a constant threat to peace and stability in the region. That was the party line anyway.

But I wanted to go further and examine who we faced and why. What situations had led up to the current peace stalemate in effect for almost fifty years, and why the most fierce opponent of the United States would not yield in the face of one of the largest famines in the world that was plaguing their country.

I arrived in Seoul in November of 1996. Up until that time, mention of North Korea was limited to brief announcements on the local news about nuclear weapons development or the death of North Koreas dictator, Kim Il Sung.

I entered the country at the onset of renewed hostilities. North Korea sent a spy submarine filled with armed commandos into South Korean waters, and then ashore. The 25 infiltrators sent the peninsula in to a heightened state of security.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

VOANEWS: Unique US Military Operation Supports Science Efforts in Polar Regions

During the Cold War, Greenland was a strategic location for the United States military to track and detect Soviet aircraft and ballistic missiles. The military established radar and tracking sites throughout Greenland's ice sheet. The only way in and out of the remote facilities was by specially equipped aircraft. Since 1975, that mission has belonged to an Air Force unit based in New York state -- the 109th Airlift Wing. As VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, a unit that began a now obsolete military mission has found new life in Greenland in the pursuit of science.

The C-130 airplanes offer the only possible way to deliver heavy equipment and supplies to the remote arctic research stations

It is early morning in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing from New York state are far from home on this cold morning. It is about an hour from take off for a group of students and scientists heading into the Arctic chill of Greenland's vast ice sheet.

For many of these students, it is their first time up on the ice. But for Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Jones? "We are polar aviators," says the mission commander.

It has become a routine mission that is far from ordinary.

"We are the only C-130 in the world that has skis on them, and we're able to drop 30 to 40,000 pounds [18,000 kilograms] of cargo in one trip,” says Jones. “You wouldn't be able to do that with a smaller airplane or any other type of vehicle."

The C-130 is a robust military cargo airplane first used by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. It is now used by many different militaries around the world, but only the 109th has the distinction of flying to both polar regions.

"Our primary mission is down in Antarctica during the winter season,” explains the colonel, “and during the off season, we come up here and support VECO."

VECO Polar Resources is contracted by the National Science Foundation to coordinate travel and cargo for the scientists conducting the research.

Greg Huey is one of those scientists.

To study the atmosphere in places like Summit, Greenland's tallest point, Huey depends on equipment brought in and out by the C-130s.

"It's hard work,” he says, “because you might have a six or seven week project, and you come in on the C-130s on a certain day, and you're going to leave on the C-130s, and you have to make sure that all your equipment is there. You have to make sure that everything works."

For the most part, everything does work. The 109th prides itself on its safety record -- it has never lost an aircraft -- and its maintenance record. Ice and snow can easily ground the C-130s. But decades of operating in the difficult conditions have enabled the unit to quickly return the aircraft to service.

While the weather frequently wreaks havoc on tight schedules up on the ice sheet, there is no alternate way to get in and out of the remote camps. The 109th is currently the only organization capable of transporting the large amounts of cargo and people needed to conduct the scientific research.

"If we weren't here they would probably have to either walk, ski, or take a sled dog team into the location,” says Jones, “which would probably hamper the amount of research they would get done."

The 109th Airlift Wing is made up of Air National Guard personnel. Most typically have other full-time jobs, and serve in uniform part-time -- usually about three weeks a year.

The 109th's ongoing support of the National Science Foundation's efforts in Greenland and Antarctica comes at a time of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite the current strain that combat operations have placed on members of the National Guard, it has so far not affected peacetime operations of the 109th in the polar regions.

"We are a military organization. We bring the professionalism of a military organization and the skills and we have the assets. But the actual mission we do is in the support of science, for the betterment of mankind as a whole."

In 1999, the 109th made international headlines when Dr. Jerri Nielsen, a physician at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, discovered a cancerous lump in her breast. A ski-equipped C-130 with the 109th attempted a dangerous landing in Antarctica's winter. Despite battling poor visibility and temperatures reaching negative 50 degrees Celsius, the mission was a success. The 109th airlifted Dr. Nielsen to the United States for treatment.