Herkimer, NY - The Upstate Refugee Resettlement Program celebrated its 30th anniversary today in this small city along the Mohawk River.

"We built on a long tradition of immigrants and refugees in New York State," said founder Elias Ocongwe, now 86. "While the focus had historically been on New York City, we knew there was tremendous potential up here."

Ocongwe's early years as a social worker in Utica had exposed him to the Bosnian refugees who were helping to rebuild that city, and his later work brought him to Ithaca's growing Tibetan and Burmese communities. He had also studied Stickley's work in applying the skills of immigrants to their factory processes, and concluded that Upstate New York had an overlooked opportunity.

"When Elias started this, there were a lot of doubts," said Congressman Colden Smith (R-Lockport). "Most of the country had decided that immigrants were a cost and threat rather than an opportunity, and the world's growing refugee numbers looked like an especially dangerous problem."

"Rising tides of refugees," said Ocongwe, "and they could be an angry flood or a source of power, revitalizing a dying area."

The URRP focused its efforts on local Congressional representatives, getting federal permission for a series of resettlement experiments with closely monitored communities. Early successes with Kurdish, Palestinian, and Sudanese Christian communities led slowly to greater willingness to allow refugees to come in clusters of a few thousand and settle in the Upstate Resettlement Zone, made up of 44 counties in Upstate New York.

"I think Americans elsewhere in the country would have been terrified of our doing this," said Congressman Smith, "except that the 2015 Mandatory Identification and Registration Act already made it difficult for people, especially non-citizens, to move around the country for anything more than a weeklong visit. Upstate was in a hard enough economic position that we were willing to take the chance, and the rest of the country didn't see it as a great risk for them. The instant deportation rules also helped."

For his part, Ocongwe is pleased that instant deportation for most offenses ended three years ago, though one aspect remains important: "As much as I want to believe in the goodness of human nature, the risk of refugee versus refugee violence is just too great when different communities come here from the same conflict, or even just live next to each other. The threat of instant deportation has forced those communities to get along, though it's still a slow process."

Smith offered Ocongwe a tribute from the Upstate New York Business Chamber, which cited the program as "the main driver of new business here, from artisanal work to industry to food and culture tourism." Smith added his own praise, noting that "When Americans found the rest of the world unwelcoming, they still had an opportunity to experience what the world had to offer, right here in our back yard."

Waverly mayor Miloska Sulejmanovic also congratulated Ocongwe for his willingness to take on the federal and state governments. "He got us the vote in local elections, at a time when we didn't know what to do and weren't given a voice," she said.

"He had to compromise on the naturalization question, but he made sure that we were still able to participate and govern in our own communities. Without his vision, a lot of us would still be living in the camps, wondering how to fit into a world ruled by people who don't look or sound like us."

Ocongwe, who formally retired eleven years ago, told well-wishers that he planned to stay involved. "I didn't have children myself - you all are my children, and grandchildren."



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This page contains a single entry by Simon St.Laurent published on November 24, 2007 4:17 PM.

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