The Refugee City That Never Was: The State of Refugee Resettlement in the Hudson Valley

Three or four apartments sit dusty and vacant. Volunteers ready to work have headed home. Bank accounts with funds to help remain untouched.

A city that was ready to open its arms to eighty refugees waited anxiously for guests that never came.

The Timeline

In the wake of what some call the biggest refugee crisis since World War 2*, a coalition of faith-based organizations, community outreach programs, and local colleges formed a group called the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance. Their goal was to encourage refugee resettlement in the Hudson Valley. In early November, Church World Services, which is one of nine official refugee resettlement agencies that the U.S government contracted to help bring refugees into the states, agreed to join forces with the alliance and open an office in Poughkeepsie. They planned to settle eighty refugees in the coming fiscal year.

Number of refugees worldwide — courtesy of UNHCR

“Over the course of a year, the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance had raised about forty-six thousand dollars and secured up to four apartments for the incoming refugees,” said Dr. Michael O’Sullivan, a board member of the Marist Refugee Project Advisory Board — an initiative that worked closely with the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance.

However, in January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that sent shockwaves across the world, including the Hudson Valley, slashing the number of refugees welcomed in the country by more than half.

Following a request for an interview regarding how the executive order would effect resettlement, “I’m sorry, we’re extremely overwhelmed with inquiries and are not accepting student interview requests as of right now,” a stressed-sounding employee of Church World Services told The Groundhog over the phone in January.

“It was very unclear what would happen with resettlement in Poughkeepsie at that point,” said O’Sullivan.

Refugees Resettle Elsewhere

Of the eighty refugees that were slated to enter the Hudson Valley, only one family from the Congo successfully made it here. To the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance’s surprise, Church World Services decided that it was more fruitful to settle refugees in cities that had pre-existing, up-and-running refugee resettlement programs, such as Utica, New York and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“It’s not an argument that lacks merit,” said O’Sullivan. “The argument is — we’re trying to do this quickly. We’re under duress. We need to work with people who know exactly what they’re doing and have done this before.”

Utica and Lancaster are two of the most long withstanding refugee cities in the tristate area. “One in five people who live in Utica were born outside of the United States; it’s basically a refugee town,” O’Sullivan said.

Despite both town’s preparedness and success in resettling refugees, some have said that they’re beginning to face a problem of overcrowding and lack of resources. Just last month the school district of Lancaster settled a class-action lawsuit over how it handles older refugee students. A similar legal battle played out in Utica back in May. “It can be disheartening, because we have these apartments and money here, ready for the taking,” said O’Sullivan at a lecture to Marist College students.

The Future of the Funds

With refugee families continuing to resettle in other regions, the funds raised and apartments secured have stood stagnant. The question is — where do we go from here?

“The encouraging part is that [The Poughkeepsie Church World Service Office] is not shutting down; they very much still exist,” said Anish Kanoria, the co-founder and student leader of the Vassar Refugee Solidarity Initiative. “We’re trying to focus our efforts in a new direction.”

“As of now, there hasn’t been an official determination about what to do with the money,” Dr. O’Sullivan said. “The biggest question remains: if the alliance is no longer focused on refugee resettlement, what should we be focused on?”

The answer about what to refocus on will heavily rely on how the United States deals with refugees and how quickly the Hudson Valley can implement a successful resettlement process. O’Sullivan said, “The last I heard, the family from the Congo is learning English and settling into life here very well.”

In the meantime, officials from different organizations within the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance have planned meetings to discuss the future of the funds. Ideas have included helping victims of domestic violence, homelessness outreach and helping the undocumented migrant community. A meeting to further discuss this will be held April 30th.

“Where we are now is looking for new ways forward,” said O’Sullivan.