Rustbelt cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Detroit have struggled for decades to bounce back from the doldrums of deindustrialization. Top-down urban renewal efforts have had a mixed, mostly dismal record. Conversely, cities have enjoyed better success courting bottom-up revitalization from a surprising source: refugees.
We are facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II—yet so far, Americans have been hesitant to resettle refugees in significant numbers. Evidence clearly indicates that we shouldn’t be so wary. Strategies to recruit and empower refugees have injected new life into St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Nashville, Baltimore, and others cities, upending the idea that refugees are a drag on the economy and a danger to the community.
Refugees bolster flagging populations, expand tax bases, and launch scores of small businesses, transforming once desolate areas into thriving neighborhoods. Resettling families displaced by war is compassionate, but it’s also a smart way to give America’s cities a renewed jolt of energy.
Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that cities need two things to stay strong: economic activity and population. Refugees provide both. Many of America’s large and mid-sized cities have taken notice. Eighteen cities in the Rust Belt alone have established programs to attract, integrate, and empower refugees.
In the late 1990s, an influx of Bosnian refugees to St. Louis led neighborhoods that been heading toward “ghost-town status” into something much more. The area was, “teeming with new residents and new economic activity.” “Industrious Bosnians” ended up transforming a crime-ridden area into a “decent quarter.”
Of course, integrating refugees isn’t always easy. According to Anna Crosslin, the head of St. Louis’ biggest refugee resettlement agency, some city residents were hostile to the idea of 9,000 Bosnian refugees moving in. “But after a decade or two,” Crosslin says, “that sentiment is basically gone.” She added that letting in thousands of Bosnians was “one of the best things that has ever happened to the city.”
There are other success stories. In Oklahoma City, 7,000 Vietnamese refugees families “helped reshape a dying part” of the city and stabilized a declining neighborhood. In Utica, New York, refugee families now make up 25 percent of the population. “[T]he refugees have renovated and revitalized whole neighborhoods,” says Anthony Picente, Jr., the county’s executive officer.
In Buffalo, refugees have changed “the overall vibe of the area and make it a more desirable place to live,” according to Denise Beehag, director of a local refugee resettlement agency. “They were pretty much the only group that was moving into the west side of Buffalo and taking over those vacant houses and vacant businesses,” she said.
Refugees offer cities more than a short-term fix. They continue to boost population and foster development well after the first wave of refugees arrive. Once established, refugee communities act as a magnet for friends, family, and others who share a similar background. They buy real-estate, launch new businesses, and start families, expanding and energizing communities over the long term. In Utica, 61 Somali refugees founded a community that grew into over 2,000 within a decade.
For shrinking cities, this kind of bump in population makes a real difference. A 2012 study focused on Cleveland found that refugees from Bhutan, Ukraine, Burma, and Somalia created new jobs and boosted the Cleveland economy by $48 million. Refugee-owned businesses directly contributed $7.6 million in economic activity to the city in just a year.
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, Nashville, and Dayton also faced similar population declines that were mitigated by incoming refugee groups.
Last year, 18 mayors signed a letter asking to resettle more Syrian refugees in their respective communities. As mayors, they wrote, “we see first-hand the myriad ways in which immigrants and refugees make our communities stronger economically, socially and culturally,” and continued, “[t]he drive and enterprise of immigrants and refugees have helped build our economies, enliven our arts and culture, and enrich our neighborhoods.”
Certainly, refugee resettlement is not a panacea for urban decay, nor it is guaranteed that refugee resettlement will transform any city landscape. It can take time for refugees, many of whom have spent years in refugee camps, to learn the language and get back on their feet. Nevertheless, compared to most urban revitalization policies, refugee resettlement has an outstanding record of success in energizing depleted cities.
More than 65 million people worldwide have fallen victims to war and terror, robbing them of their stability, safety, and homes. Americans have the resources to help. But we need to understand that refugees can help us, too. As President Obama said, “immigrants and refugees revitalize and renew America.” He’s right. Many American cities desperately need revitalizing and renewal, and opening them up to refugees may prove to be the key to doing so.