Meanwhile in America: ‘New Americans’ in the Rust Belt

Maitham Basha-Agha, the Iraqi-American who photographed Erie's "New American" refugees for the Erie Reader. (Maitham Basha-Agha, for Erie Reader)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

If you’ve read or heard about Erie, Pennsylvania, since the election, it’s likely to be with framing as “declining Rust Belt city that illustrates the fears and dislocations that led to Trump.”

Over the past six months, my wife Deb and I have presented a different take on the city, as briefly mentioned in this magazine piece and laid out in more detail in this web post and others collected here. We’ve been struck by the difference between older Erie—the people of our own generation, who had grown up expecting to work at the giant GE plant and are still devastated by its slow-motion shutdown—and younger Erie, people who never expected to work in big factories and are starting new businesses. This is an illustration of an old/young split we’ve seen across the country.

What initially drew our attention to the city was its purposeful role as a welcoming point for immigrants and refugees. If people from the area were moving away, why not attract those who historically and actuarially have a higher-than-average rate of entrepreneurship and business formation? Today the weekly Erie Reader published a magnificent feature: a large-format photo display of refugees who have made Erie their home.

I’ll let you go to the feature, on “Rust Belt New Americans:  A Showcase of Erie’s Refugee Population,” to see the several dozen portraits, by Iraqi-American photographer Maitham Basha-Agha (with accompanying narration). I’ll say that this conveys part of what we saw in Erie—and Sioux Falls and Burlington and Fresno and other places with significant refugee populations—and is so much at odds with the fearful national policies of the moment.

Here’s one portrait, of Afrim Latifi, originally of Kosovo, now an insurance agent and soccer coach:

Afrim Latifi, originally from Kosovo, now of Erie. (Maitham Basha-Agha, for Erie Reader)

Another of our friends in Erie who is featured in the story—Ferki Ferati, now executive director of the civically important Jefferson Educational Society in Erie—also arrived as a young refugee from Kosovo.

And here are two Muslim sisters now in Erie schools:

Sisters Maryan, age 15 (left), and Kaltuma, age 17, in Erie schools. (Maitham Basha-Agha, for Erie Reader)

While I’m at it, here is a story from, with videos of people coming out on a frigid-cold Lake Erie day to rally in support of their refugees and immigrants, and against the new ban.

The psephologists and other polling experts have confirmed it: the areas with the greatest anti-refugee or -immigrant fear and fury are the ones with the least first-hand exposure to newcomers. Congratulations and respect to our friends in Erie for the spirit they are showing.