In Conversation with Professor Bartle: What Hamilton Can Learn from Refugees in Utica


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


In Conversation with: Alex Hollister ’17


by Lilly Yangchen

Hamilton College has built a strong affiliation with the refugee community in Utica over a long period of time. The relationship is continuously flourishing today with more students showing enthusiasm to help and learn from the refugees. Alex Hollister ’17 shares an inspiring journey about his involvement with the refugee population that started from a simple tutoring program through Project Shine. “I wanted to do something different,” he recalls.

Although he was introduced into the refugee community only about a year ago, Hollister has come a long way since then building a career out of his passion to helping the refugees. As a Levitt Center Research Fellow, he spent his entire summer last year collaborating with Professor of Economics, Paul Hagstrom and two other students, Hersheena Rajaram ’19 and Patrick McConnell ’19 on a 2-year long research project that focused on Refugee Youth Migration from Utica. They developed a comprehensive survey to examine the factors that affected the refugees to either stay in Utica or leave for educational or other opportunities after settling in Utica. He adds, “we are also integrating aspects of financial literacy to see if they have a greater concept of financial institutions in United States after staying here for a while.” The survey would go out this summer after it has been refined and tested, and they will follow up with the results from the data collected accordingly.

The research has really allowed Hollister to establish a special attachment to the refugee community as he felt he “had to help them in some way” which resulted from working closely with them for ten weeks. He also built ties with organizations like MUCC and On Point for College through the research. Following the summer research, he started working with Professor Hagstrom on an independent study.

With the rich experiences Hollister has gathered over the year, he describes the relationship between the Hamilton community and the refugee community in Utica as a “two way street”. There is so much to learn from each other and it enhances rich community diversity.

He shares his concern regarding the Refugee ban by the new administration. He says that the refugees “have a tremendous effect on the American economy” and there is a growing need to realize their importance in our communities today. Sharing his favorite experience with the refugees, Hollister talks about the World Refugee Day celebration in Utica that he attended last summer. He was fascinated by the diverse cultures that the different refugee groups presented, and thus emphasizes the importance of this diversity in terms of American history. After graduating from Hamilton with an Economics major, Hollister will be working with the refugee youth community through Teach For America in New Haven, Connecticut for the next two years. We wish him all the best of luck!


Photo courtesy of Lilly Yangchen

Refugee Solidarity Rally

On February 10, 2017, the Refugee Solidarity Rally took place at the Oneida Square Roundabout in Utica, NY. The rally’s purpose was to stand not only with the refugee population in Utica, but with those globally who have been affected by recent national events as well.

“Being a participant in the rally meant a lot to me. I was able to connect with many of my friends based upon a deep-seated passion we all shared. It was reassuring to see many people standing against the bigotry and inhumanity that have filled our social media sources. I was able to chant along side relentless, passionate refugees, peers, and active people who share the same love and resistance for a more welcoming and inclusive society.” – Amar Kassim

“The typical cold Friday evening in Utica last week witnessed a heartwarming spirit of love and community support from hundreds of participants at the Refugee Solidarity Rally. The rally was hosted in an effort to show support for all the refugees affected by the recent events in the country. The Hamilton College Student Assembly organized a bus for a group of Hamilton students to participate at the rally. A cheerful crowd gathered at the Oneida Square Roundabout in Utica carrying slogans like ‘Stand against Racism’, and reciting powerful chants like ‘No ban, no wall’ and ‘Refugees are welcome here’ throughout the evening. The rally marked a meaningful gathering of people from various groups coming together for a common cause… Everyone was kind and friendly indeed. The organizers and volunteers distributed slogans, hats and hot coffee to stand through the brutal weather, and to stand in solidarity for all the refugees, who are a vibrant part of our community.” – Lilly Yangchen

Photo courtesy of Lilly Yangchen

In Conversation With: Professor Erol Balkan

by Samantha Weeks

Hamilton’s Professor of Economics Erol Balkan plays a large role in the refugee community of Utica and around the world. Through sharing his experience, Balkan aims to involve more and more Hamilton students in his project, Refugees on the Move, and raise general awareness of the current global refugee crisis.

Balkan’s interest in the refugee community began four years ago in Turkey: “I was working on a documentary on the Euphrates River close to the border of Turkey and Syria, and I witnessed the plight of thousands of refugees coming [into Turkey]. This got me thinking, and I started to get involved as researcher and social scientist.”

His experience in Turkey (he is currently working with two NGO’s who are working with refugee communities in Turkey)  motivated Balkan to increase his role in the refugee community around Hamilton. He developed a proposal with New York Six (a consortium of six colleges in Upstate New York) called “Refugees on the Move”, which attempts to “connect global refugee issues with local refugee lives.” The crisis is especially relevant for Hamilton students due to their proximity to Utica, a current hub for refugees. Refugees on the Move with the partnership of the Levitt Center has developed various research activities for Hamilton students  in order to increase their awareness and involvement. For example, the project is planning to screen the oscar nominated ‘Watani: My Homeland’ at Hamilton, a documentary about a refugee family’s journey from Syria to Germany, and bring the director, producer, and if possible even the family who made the journey to campus. This screening will serve as the beginning of many activities to come involving the local refugee community. He is also in the process of constructing a website called  to host news, articles, opinions, etc. about the global refugee crisis.

Balkan additionally wants to communicate the unconstitutionality of Trump’s recent refugee ban and its impact on communities who are receiving refugees. Utica, a city that was on the decline for the past 50 years, is currently undergoing economic development due to the work of the refugee community. In recent years, refugees have opened small businesses and employed community members, which creates more tax-payers. This ban is going to negatively affect communities like Utica, which have gained economic prosperity from the work of refugees. According to Balkan, “the founding of this country is all about refugees and immigrants, so this ban is completely unconstitutional.”

To find out more opportunities to get involved with refugee community in Utica and fight the current refugee ban, please contact Professor Balkan at

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