The Town that Loves Refugees


Utica is a City of Migration. For over 200 years, Utica, New York, a city of 60,000 has attracted immigrants and refugees. The immigrant communities that had settled in the city included Italian, Irish, German, Polish, and Arab populations. In 1910, the foreign born population of Utica constituted 28.6% of the city's population, but by 1990 it had declined to 5.4%. Utica experienced a sharp population decline from 100,410 in 1960 to 60,651 in 2000.

Since opening in 1981, the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR) has resettled over 15,000 individuals, helping to re-stabilize the population and reverse a half-century of continuous population decline. By 2010 the population had increased to 62,235. 

This phenomenon has been the subject of numerous national and international news articles and has resulted in Oneida County having one of the largest concentrations of refugees in the U.S. The City of Utica now has a foreign born population of 17.6% with a quarter of the population (26.6%) speaking a language other than English at home (US Census).

For 35 years MVRCR has been an independent affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Service (LIRS), one of 10 national voluntary agencies (large non- profit social service organizations that support refugee resettlement programs and work directly with the federal government).

The Founding Executive Director

The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees grew out of the inspiration of Roberta Douglas, whose concern for Amerasian children led her to work with refugees. Her efforts began with the resettlement of a single Vietnamese man through Catholic Charities in Syracuse.

With the assistance of Roberta’s husband, a group of local clergy, the Superintendent of Utica Schools, the Oneida County Executive, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the Center was officially established in 1979 and incorporated in 1981 with Roberta Douglas as the first Executive Director.

Since its inception the Center has assisted refugees from more than 34 countries, including Bhutan, Bosnia, Burma, Cambodia, Iraq, Laos, Russia and the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, Sudan, Somalia and others.

The Next Phase: Welcoming Vietnamese and Russians in the 80's

In 1983, Rose Marie Battisti became the Executive Director. The Resource Center for Refugees grew and prospered during her 10-year term. Refugee placement numbers continually increased with the arrival of many Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Polish refugees. By 1993, the refugee arrivals had increased to 370 per year.

A major accomplishment for Ms. Battisti and the Resource Center for Refugees was the establishment of the Welcome Home House, a part of the Amerasian Residential Program (ARP). The Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1990 allowed outcast children fathered by American soldiers during the Vietnam War the right to come to their fathers’ homeland.

The concept of ARP was to eliminate the 6-month stop for Amerasians at the Philippines Processing Center before entry into the U.S. Groups of 75 young people were brought to Utica every three months, beginning in July of 1991 and ending in October 1992.

Housed in the former Dixhurst Building at the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center on Court Street, they were taught English as a Second Language (ESL), vocational skills and cultural orientation to American life. At the end of this training period, they were relocated to one of five centers around the country.

The third large wave of refugees began in 1988 with the arrival of the first families from the former Soviet Union. These refugees were mostly Pentecostal Russians who came to escape religious persecution. At the close of 1996, the Russians were the largest group ever resettled, numbering close to 1,400.

The 1990s: Welcoming the Bosnian Community

Richard P. Sessler became the Executive Director in 1993 when Rose Marie left the position to assume the directorship of the Welcome House Social Services for the Pearl S. Buck Foundation. Sessler, a retired Air Force officer, had served the Refugee Center as Assistant Director for three years. He brought sound management and diplomatic skills to the position. Under his direction the Center expanded to serve the fourth major population influx when Congress voted to include Bosnian refugees in the U.S. refugee allotment. In the first year of the program, the Resource Center for Refugees relocated 79 Bosnians.

In 1997 the agency resettled 1,145 Bosnians, the largest number of individuals ever resettled by MVRCR in one year. By 2006 when the last Bosnian arrived under refugee status MVRCR had assisted just over 4,500 individuals from the former Yugoslavia. Individuals from Bosnia can no longer come to the U.S. under refugee status; however, many continue to arrive to the Utica area as immigrants through family reunification and marriage.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 drastically impacted refugee resettlement to the U.S. The number of resettled refugees declined from an average of 70,000 annually before 2001 to 28,000 in 2003. The impact on the Resource Center for Refugees was substantial. In 2003, the Center resettled only 256 refugees (having resettled 577 in 2001).

The 2000s: Responding to a Changing World

In 2002, Mr. Sessler retired and Peter D. Vogelaar became the Executive Director. Mr. Vogelaar lived and worked in the Middle East for much of his life. Before coming to the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees he served with the Reformed, Lutheran, and Presbyterian Churches as Director of the Joint Relief Ministry for refugees at St. Andrew’s United Church in Cairo.
In 2003 the Board of Directors instituted a formal strategic planning process to analyze the ongoing activities of the Center, consider new directions, and propose revisions to the Center’s mission. Two strategic directions were proposed, each building on the strengths of the Center’s experience and position in the community:

  • Strengthen and solidify the Center’s existing resettlement programs for refugees.
  • Enhance programs for non-refugee immigrants and position the center as a cultural broker to the community.

Over the next 8 years, following these strategic directions, Mr. Vogelaar expanded the services of the Refugee Center to include immigration, citizenship, interpretation, translation, and cultural competency services.

The new strategic directions of the Center reflected the presence and needs of the growing refugee and non-refugee immigrants in the community. MVRCR focused on enabling individuals and communities to promote and sustain their cultural identity, and increasing access to medical assistance and culturally and linguistically appropriate services to Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals within the community. Through this process the Compass Interpreters division of MVRCR was born. For more information visit www.compassinterpreters.org

In 2012 Peter Vogelaar left his position as Executive Director to continue working with displaced populations overseas, accepting a job with ICMC in Istanbul Turkey. Shelly Callahan, then Director of Programs and Services, was hired as the next Executive Director.

Continuing the Mission to Build Community with Many Cultures

Prior to being Director of Programs and Services, Shelly Callahan managed the Employment Services department at the Refugee Center. Since becoming Executive Director, Mrs. Callahan has presided over a renewed strategic planning process resulting in even greater collaboration with community partners. The Refugee Center will continue its long tradition of assisting refugees, immigrants, and those with limited English language proficiency throughout the integration process and help them achieve independence and self-sufficiency by developing products and services that enable us to build a community with many cultures.

MVRCR attributes our success to the strength and dedication of the staff and their passionate concern for refugees and immigrants. Equally important to our success is the warm welcome refugees and non-refugee immigrants continue to receive from Utica and the Mohawk Valley.