by Maria Saenz
Describing his approach to working with the refugee community in Utica, Professor Bartle says, “we [the Hamilton College community] are learning as much from the refugees, as they are learning from us.” For Professor Bartle, involvement with the refugee community should lead to more balance between Hamilton and Utica.
A Utica resident, Professor Bartle has a long history of involvement with refugees in Utica. As a professor of Russian, he took his students to Utica so they may speak with Belarusian refugees. Through this exchange, Hamilton students could practice speaking Russian while the refugees could practice speaking English. Since then, he has been involved in Utica through a variety of ways. His most recent involvement has been through the Refugee Project.
In 2014, several professors as well as students collaborated to launch a project through the Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi). The Refugee Project, which was “as much student-run as it was professor-run,” consists of two short films and an archive of journalistic sources and oral interviews. The Refugee Project brings to life the narratives of refugees in Utica. In a city in which over 40 languages are spoken, the Refugee Project focuses also demonstrates the vast degree of diversity within the refugee community. For students, the Refugee Project is a unique learning experience that promotes a sense of agency among Utica’s refugees to share their own stories.
The two films, The Newcomers and Genesee Lights, focus on several aspects of refugee life. The Newcomers documents the experiences of 17-to-20-year-old refugees who participated in the Newcomers Program. In this program, young refugees gained the literacy levels necessary to take the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC), a high school equivalency exam, which would allow them to pursue higher education. Genesee Lights looks at how Bosnian refugees embraced a “Utican” identity not just by adopting American values but also by shaping Utica. Bosnian refugees bought homes, opened businesses, and refashioned an old church into a mosque which both revitalized Utica and allowed Bosnians to call Utica home. For Professor Bartle, the films are important because they not only highlight the difficulties refugees face in adapting to a new life but also illustrate the contributions refugees can make in a community open to change.
Professor Bartle’s most recent plans consists of a mapping project. He plans to develop an extensive map which indicates where the refugee-owned businesses are within Utica and link the businesses on the map with customer reviews. He hopes this will provide greater recognition to refugee entrepreneurs.
Looking towards the future, Professor Bartle also hopes the Hamilton College community will continue developing research projects to understand trends within the refugee community and create more student-led service initiatives which connects students to Utica in innovative ways. He encourages interested students to become involved with Project SHINE, joining clubs like On the Move, volunteering in Utica with the refugee community, or reaching out to professors to develop new ideas. With the current political climate surrounding issues of immigration and the government’s position towards refugees, Professor Bartle hopes that the Hamilton community will learn that “integration is the way to cure the ills of society.”
Photo courtesy of Lilly Yangchen