For a brief moment last Sunday afternoon, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul downplayed the personal importance of looter and Russian President Vladimir Putin in one sentence. It wasn’t intentional, but the point was clear.
When it comes to capital and finance, the Empire State is a bigger player than the largest country in the world. “With the 10th largest economy in the world, bigger than Russia, we realize the power we have,” Hochul said before announcing the end of mask-wearing requirements in schools.
Minutes later, she signed an executive order halting state investment and purchases with a derailed nation. Putin’s power play, which began last week with his assault on Ukraine, is distressing and heartbreaking to watch. Innocent civilians are on the run and live day to day in fear and uncertainty.
According to the Associated Press on Thursday, the UN refugee agency predicted that up to 4 million people, at least, could eventually flee Ukraine. European Union Commissioner Ylva Johansson said “We must be ready for millions of refugees to come to the European Union.”
New York is home to the largest Ukrainian population in the United States, according to Hochul, who also stressed his willingness to help those forced to leave. “We will open our hearts, our homes, our resources to the people of Ukraine to say that we are with you if you need a place to stay,” she says. “If you want to come here, we will help you integrate into our community, as we have been open to so many other refugees in the past.”
This region and Dunkirk in particular are home to a large Polish population. At the moment, their homeland is one of the countries that is seeing a huge influx of Ukrainians due to the attack. Other affected border towns include Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.
How ready is upstate for potential new residents? Not as prepared – or open-minded – as those in New York. Downstate, 36% of the population is foreign born. This is one of the highest rates in the country.
Here at home, acceptance is not so easy. It’s a point that U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, didn’t tiptoe when he recently made a call during a conference call with regional media.
“I hope… that we will welcome to America those who seek to flee this persecution and this threat to their safety,” he said. “We in the 23rd Congressional District stand ready to help alleviate this type of harm and this type of situation for individuals and families. … We should welcome them to the region and be part of efforts to mitigate this threat.
Meanwhile, corporations and small businesses in Western New York continue to search for a sudden precious commodity: workers. Part of the local sentiment is that the new generation of workers is not as engaged as those of retirement age. This may be true, but there is also a bigger factor in terms of population.
While numbers have been declining in the county over the past 40 years, there is an upward trend that is not helping to fill vacancies. Our senior population is nearly 21%, that’s more than the state and nation, which is closer to 17%.
If no one moves in, who will take those slots? Refugees from countries in crisis not only want a fresh start, they also want to contribute.
In a recent publication, a Bloomberg Law website offered a perspective on the book, “Immigration: The Key to the Future – the Benefits of Resettlement in Upstate New York.” The vast majority, notes the site, those who arrive in this region bring with them opportunities and investments. “The truth facing New York is that a combination of an aging workforce, baby boomer retirements, declining birth rates and emigration of long-term residents is jeopardizing the future of small communities nationwide”, the Bloomberg Law article noted this. “This void continues to be filled by immigrants who, as a group, are an important driver for our future stability and economic well-being.”
Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel cautiously noted this week that he is “receptive” to those from Ukraine who come here, but note, “there is much more (to this) than opening our doors.”
Jamestown officials seem more proactive and engaged in the process, however. Mayor Eddie Sundquist, at a community meeting in December, broached the topic of welcoming refugees from Afghanistan and has since passed the baton to faith-based organizations.
“I am very happy to see the possibility that we bring refugees to resettle in the city,” he said in a recent interview. “It not only helps expand the depth of our community and our diversity, but it brings in a new workforce and talent.”
That exact feeling must be the mindset of this county. Everything else, as evidenced by an echoing census decline, is just wishful thinking.
John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pennsylvania. Send your comments to [email protected] or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.