Refugee Center


(Left to right) Hassan, Tatjana, and Dzevad in The Center's Resettlement Unit.

The first thing you notice as you walk into The Center, as it’s come to be known, is the hum of activity. Next, you see the diversity of the people around you—different cultures, faces and attire. You hear different languages being spoken. If you poke your head in the Resettlement Unit, you'll see former refugees helping new arrivals. In the Employment Unit, you'll see refugees and local staff working side by side to place newcomers in jobs. Refugees are being helped with everything from English and citizenship classes to learning how to install a car seat. It’s an impressive display of helping people succeed in a new country and culture.

Kpaw Lay

One thing that can make a department successful is having one person within it who is somehow above the fray at all times. Kpaw is that guy in the employment department at MVRCR. He reclines in his chair, surveying the refugee client sitting across from him, dispensing advice that he knows well might not be taken as seriously as it should be. It’s a tricky position he has, between employers looking for reliable workers, and refugees struggling to figure out the best way to fend for their families and maybe, just maybe, achieve some of their dreams. How do you tell someone who tended his family’s goats, that it’s important to stay in a job for a year for their resume? How can you tell them about our complicated health insurance system? Kpaw knows you can't be sure what information will be absorbed. Kpaw is one of our favorite people to talk to at MVRCR, especially on camera. He raises one eyebrow, “You want to ask me some questions?” He is circumspect, a quality he has earned via years of experience. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything, which might partly explain his reticence to be interviewed. But to us, therein lies his great value. We know resettlement isn’t easy. We know that first generation refugees aren’t going to become anything like our iconic Marlboro Man American. But they are probably going to become American citizens and they are going to have to understand our complicated systems to some extent. Kpaw is their guide in this dark tunnel, complete with safari hat.

Shana Pughe Dean

To be honest, when we began making our film, we were mainly interested in refugees. But Utica and the locals quickly caught our eye. What is it with these people who grew up in this area that they’re so embracing of their refugee population? Shana has invested herself in understanding refugees to the extent that she now leads cultural competency trainings for local businesses looking to hire refugees. We got to shoot one with International Wire Group and what can we say but, very cool. The result there is that the 60 or so refugees IWG has hired in the past 10 months have been integrated without many bumps. Of course, The Center being what it is, this is only part of what Shana does. She heads up TONE, the Center’s translation unit, as well. She’s been helping us there as some of the languages we’re dealing with are not the garden variety. Nuer anyone? That’s a Sudanese/Ethiopian language. But getting back to our original point to wrap up, Shana is a great example of an upstate NYer who does what she can to let refugees know, “Hey, we’re glad you’re here. Let me see what I can do to help make your transition easier.” That’s the focus of the film we’re making in a nutshell.

Tatjana Kulalic

Tatjana is the Refugee Center’s Immigration Coordinator. She is also a Bosnian refugee herself. As such, her compassion for the refugees that she helps gain citizenship runs deep. She told us about a Burmese family she helped reunite. The parents had to flee their village and so left their children with their grandparents. They thought they’d be able to return shortly, but it didn’t work out that way. They fled to in Malaysia, and then wound up in Utica as refugees. Tatiana quickly initiated a process to bring their children here too. It took a year and a half, and they were finally reunited. “To see them together with the kids,” Tatiana says, “it’s bigger than life really.” We asked her if the current administration’s policies are making it difficult to continue reuniting families. She thought for a moment before offering the most positive response she could muster, “Well, the hope dies last. I hope.”

Ashley Bustos

When we first started shooting in 2017, we guessed that Ashley must have been with the Refugee Center since it's inception, she was so at the center of things. As it turned out she was a relatively recent hire but, yeah, she was already integral. Ashley has moved from being assistant to the Executive Director, Shelly, to working in the employment section. The move makes sense because this is an area where The Center wants to make big progress. Ashley is the woman for the job. Together with her co-workers, the Employment Section is becoming known for placing refugees with the many companies in the area who are looking for steady workers. It’s a win-win-win situation. Employers are happy, refugees getting good jobs are happy, and The Center is happy. Utica is happy too, so add another win.

Lisanne Divine

Lisanne is the embodiment of the thoroughness with which MVRCR approaches the daunting task of resettlement. She is the agency’s Traffic Safety Coordinator. We don’t know if most resettlement agencies have such a position, but that MVRCR does strikes us as indicative of why Utica is arguably the most successful city in the country when it comes to resettling refugees. Think about it, most refugees come from warm weather climates. Utica is in the heart of the snow belt. And if you’ve ever driven in a crowded Asian city, or in rural Africa, you know our rules of the road here are a different animal. Traffic safety is important in the US, but maybe more so in Utica. To put it another way, Utica’s Police Chief is happy that Lisanne is doing this work. We’ve got it on film that she’s happy doing it too.

Jayson Win

The refugee center's resettlement staff reflects the major refugee groups in Utica and Jayson is the Burmese resettlement officer on the team. He works tirelessly to pick refugees up at the airport, make sure they are settled comfortably into a new apartment, and find them food they like. Like all resettlement officers it's his job to set these families up to succeed as best as he can. That includes everything from scheduling doctor's visits to making sure they have working smoke detectors. What's really special about Jayson is that he connects with these people. Part of it may just be his goofy personality but oftentimes his most important job when working with brand new arrivals is coming to them with a smile. Jayson just found some time to go on his first trip back to Burma and is taking his father (also his first trip).

Tracy Davis

As Chief Operations Officer at the Refugee Center, Tracy holds down the financial fort, among other things. And, as the incoming numbers of refugees fell to only 10,000 from 2017-2020, she’s had to deliver some tough news to her co-workers. She takes it all personally. Tracy suffers disautonomia, a disorder of the autonomic nervous system that often leaves her tired, dizzy, and sometimes unable to work. But she typically pushes through. She has a special compassion for the refugees coming through The Center, and those stranded in camps abroad, and the children being separated from their parents at the border, and…well, just about everyone. While she may be something of a number cruncher, she knows some digits represent human lives. These are not to be taken for granted.

Abdelshakour Khamis

Abdelshakour wears many hats at the refugee center and beyond: Resettlement agent, employment agent, systems and IT coordinator, driving instructor, translator, Arabic tutor, therapist, sage, friend, father, refugee. Though he does them all happliy he is paid for only a few of these jobs. Abdelshakour has been a favorite character of ours because of his limitless heart and humble spirit. Many people at the center say he can brighten any room but there is also a sadness that Abdelshakour acknowledges. While he is an optimist, Abdelshakour is honest about the trauma of being a refugee and it’s effect on his own life. He uses that knowledge to help refugees who come through the refugee center deal with their own trauma. Now when we see Abdelshakour, we talk about the future. He wants us to take a trip to Sudan with him. We'd love that.

Shelly Callahan

Shelly Callahan is the fearless Executive Director of MVRCR and has been since 2013. She has seen the center through some of their happiest times but the 4 years starting in 2017 have been tough. She has faced down difficult decisions as the agency responded to the budget cuts following each annual drop in incoming refugee numbers. As the face of a government funded agency she had previously championed an apolitical position but now is increasingly an advocate for increased resettlement. While she wears the advocate title well, she does believe it distracts from the work she signed on as Director to do: resettling refugees. With the record low number of 10,000 resettled in fiscal 2020 in the rear view mirror, Shelly has turned her focus to the new administration's ambitious proposed numbers. She cautions that, ""This program is going to take frankly years to recover."" That said, she is quick to add, "I don't think we have a prayer of getting 110,000 refugees into the country, but man, I'd like to try. I'll hustle." And that spirit will guide The Center going forward.


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