RESURGENCE

West Hill a refugee haven

Nonprofit organization helping to revive area

Picture

Skip Dickstein / Times Union Refugees from Afghanistan, from left; Shakiba Nadir, Tafsela Hashimi and her 4-year-old son and Latifa Ali Muhammed in the home they rent in Albany’s west Hill.

Albany

From community gardens to a welcome center, visions of turning apart of West Hill into a neighborhood for refugees has kept one city resident in the community despite worries about poverty and crime.

Tim Doherty’s efforts to purchase vacant or dilapidated homes on Elk and Sherman streets, sandwiched between heavily traveled Quail and Ontario streets, through his nonprofit RefugeeWelcomeCorp.joins a continuing resurgence of the neighborhood in recent years.

The neighborhood has one of the highest rates of vacant buildings in the city, but Doherty wants to change that and has helped refugees find housing along the way. Challenged to find affordable housing, Afghani refugee Tafsela Hashimi and her 4-year-old son were connected with another Afghani family — Latifa Ali Muhammad and her niece Shakiba Nadir and nephew Larhad Nadir — by Doherty.

“They have all kinds of things they can offer and we can fully make use of it,” Doherty said, adding that helping refugees integrate is important for the community’s success. “We have a whole bunch of vacant and problem buildings and disinvestment in the area, so the only way to salvage investment here is to try and go for these buildings.”

While there are initial up-front costs to resettling refugees, various upstate New York communities have benefited and been revived due to the influx.

With over 4,000 refugees who have resettled in the Capital Region since 2005, and more to come this year, finding “safe, affordable apartments” has become more difficult, said Jill Peckenpaugh, director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees & Immigrants in Albany.

“We have gone into some neighborhoods we haven’t been in before,” she said.

The nonprofit organization helps families find housing and jobs and offers English classes and guidance on financial management.

While Doherty offers housing to refugees, he also helps fill out paperwork, drives the families to doctor’s appointments and English classes and teaches them how to drive. The mission is what got Arizona resident Kay Bauman, a friend of Doherty’s, on board.

“These people who we are welcoming desperately need a safe place to live,” said Bauman, who has helped fund the cause. “To make an effort to welcome them into your neighborhood, into your community, help them find” the grocery store, jobs and schooling “it’s exciting to me, and it’s the right thing to do.”

For Hashimi — who was wed as a young teen and wasn’t allowed to continue her education — the United States offered the promise of freedom and opportunities unheard of for women in Afghanistan.

“If woman outside working, it’s very shameful for the man,” Hashimi, whose native language is Dari, said. “Here, everyone has freedom — I’m thinking I like that. For me, this is very good life.”

Even though West Hill struggles with shootings, drug deals and vacant buildings, Hashimi said her Elk Street home is a refuge compared to where she came from.

Communities across the state have seen a revival due to refugees resettling in the area, including Albany.

“Dana Avenue, you wouldn’t drive down it,” Peckenpaugh said. “Now we can’t even afford to put refugees down there. We had a lot of Bhutanese people who rented properties and stayed, and then property (values) rose.”

In the city of Utica, neighborhoods have seen major resurgences, particularly East Utica and now Cornhill, said Shelly Callahan, executive director of the Mohawk Valley Refugee Center.

Over 16,000 refugees have resettled in Utica in the past 37 years, opening businesses and renovating deteriorating buildings in the city, Callahan said.

“Without them, this would be a far different city and we would be having a completely different conversation,” she said. “I don’t think you’d see the economic revitalization that is going on now without refugees coming here and making this place their home for the last 36 years.”

As West Hill in Albany continues to show promise, Doherty said he sees his nook of the neighborhood benefiting from refugee resettlement as well.

Hashimi said she wants to become a heart surgeon, or a doctor, someday.

“I’m only one person planning my future and my baby’s future,” she said. “What is difficult for me — I want to take that.”

afries@timesunion.com 518-454-5353 @ mandy_fries

See this article in the e-Edition Here