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Opinion | Sasha Chanoff

Refugees revitalize American cities

Hanna Barczyk for The Boston Globe

The Obama administration’s decision to bring in 110,000 refugees next year, a small percentage of the overall immigration the United States will see from around the world, will benefit America in significant ways.

Refugee resettlement has played a valuable role in revitalizing towns and cities that have declined and stagnated economically. Contrary to anti-refugee rhetoric that shuns and maligns, refugees contribute to job growth, our economy, and our lives.

As a bellwether town for the impact of refugees on a local community, Lewiston, Maine, stands as an important national example. In 2001, Somali refugees from across the United States began arriving en masse, drawn by cheap rents and safe school opportunities. The mayor asked them to stop coming. “Our city is maxed out financially, physically, and emotionally,” he wrote in an open letter. At that time, similar to today, antirefugee rhetoric emboldened xenophobia. A white supremacist group came to Lewiston to protest what they considered an invasion.


But Somalis saw a chance to open businesses in a town that had declined since the 1970s with the loss of the mill industry. Restaurants and shops took root in the decaying town center that residents referred to as “the combat zone.” It’s taken hard work and cooperative spirit, but Somalis today are integrated, and some, like Zamzam Mohamud, whom the mayor appointed to the school board, have become icons of community engagement. Crime has gone down, according to the police chief. A few years after Somalis began arriving, Inc. magazine named Lewiston one of the best places to do business in America.

This is not a unique story. St Louis has one of the largest Bosnian refugee populations in the country, many of them Muslims. They began arriving two decades ago and rebuilt their lives and brought prosperity. A local bank took a chance early on, providing loans to buy houses, invest in properties, and open restaurants, bakeries, repair shops, trucking businesses, and cleaning companies. Bosnian entrepreneurship has created jobs and opportunities for other Americans as well. The population of some 70,000 is credited with bolstering sagging school enrollment, invigorating the city center, revitalizing neighborhoods, and stabilizing the city’s decline.


Bosnians in Utica, N.Y., along with Somalis, Burmese, and other refugees stemmed the tide of population decline there and have contributed to such a high degree that the mayor of Utica continues to welcome refugees, including Syrians. A PBS NewsHour report highlights that “Utica’s commitment to resettle refugees isn’t purely humanitarian — its open-door policy is also a pioneering economic tool for revitalizing the Rust Belt.”

While some express concern that refugees take jobs away from Americans, I certainly didn’t see that in my own work as a refugee job developer in the 1990s in Boston, where refugees often took positions that employers couldn’t otherwise fill. More broadly, The New York Times cites a recent study indicating that immigration is “integral to the nation’s economic growth because immigrants bring new ideas and add to an American labor force that would be shrinking without them.”

Refugee resettlement, of course, is not a uniformly rosy picture. Today’s refugees, similar to Irish, German, Italian, and other immigrants who arrived in previous centuries, struggle to gain a foothold in America, and, in addition, grapple with the traumas of warfare.

But we are not at risk of being overrun or harmed by terrorists, as those with little knowledge of our refugee resettlement program claim. Rather, we have an effective system to select carefully those with few or no other options for survival, who then go through an average of two years of interviews, vetting, and security checks before they can finally travel here.


More than 3.2 million refugees have come to the United States since 1975. They are social workers, farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, doctors, teachers, engineers and others. They can apply for a green card after a year and citizenship after five, with additional security checks at each point. They go to school, marry, raise families, and contribute to our ethos of hard work, striving, and resilience. Those of us who know them understand that they better us as a nation.

When we are welcoming, a national characteristic rooted in our founders’ search for freedom from persecution and tyranny, we strengthen the social and economic fabric of our towns and cities, and the moral character that has distinguished us. When we malign and shut out refugees, we are not only harming them, we are also limiting our own ability to prosper.

Sasha Chanoff is the founder and executive director of RefugePoint, a humanitarian organization aiding refugees, and the co-author (along with David Chanoff) of From Crisis to Calling: Finding Your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions. Twitter: @SashaChanoff.