A Burmese refugee works at International Wire Group.

It has been said about refugees that they self-select along socially Darwinian lines. John Zogby agrees: “Anybody who is willing to ride on a raft, swim a turbulent river, ride in the back of a truck without any air, get shot at, climb a barbed wire fence, I think that's kind of person I'd want on my team." Not to suggest that the best reason to take in refugees is to bolster our workforce, but they are strong people and they are looking to transform their lives. “You are just desperate to be successful,” Kadi, a former refugee from Liberia told us. “We have been through so much (that) we have to make it.” 

Listening to the stories of refugees does inspire.

Hassan Abbas

Hassan, a Palestinian, was born and raised in Iraq, but he could never be a citizen there. Palestinians were denied that right. When the Iraqi government collapsed after the U.S. invasion in 2003, all Iraqis felt threatened but it was worse for non-citizens like Hassan’s family. They fled in a genuine chase scene out of a movie, first to Syria before Hassan and his wife ended up in a refugee camp for Palestinians.  For a time, Hassan worked there for UNHCR, entering data. He believes the experience helped him as a refugee, and helped him get to Utica. Arguably it helped him here too, to land a job helping fellow refugees at the Refugee Center. In witnessing the care with which he prepares a home for an incoming refugee family, you see him return a favor he received upon his own arrival here.

Goga Beslic

We believe Goga is the first female refugee business owner in Utica. She moved here with her husband to escape the war in Bosnia. Goga used to cut hair there, and when they spotted a good storefront in the heart of east Utica, they scraped together the money to buy it. Now Goga’s Hair Salon and Barbershop has a waiting room full of Utican—Bosnians, other refugees, and American-born. If you need a haircut, you go to Goga.

Ebrima Bakarr

Ebrima escaped civil war in Sierra Leone 17 years ago. As a kid many of the things he witnessed are unfathomable—but you never forget seeing neighbors killed and friends with their hands cut off. When Ebrima arrived in Utica, he quickly identified it as home. He works a full-time job and volunteers as a coach for a youth soccer team. He has a deep love of the sport, a common sentiment in Utica, and shares that with his young players. It's not surprising that he wants to give back to the country that let him live without fear. That's the spirit of refugees in a nutshell.

The Sa Ban Family

Meeting Sa Ban and her Burmese family at the airport was very different from our earlier trip to meet the Azeins from Sudan. Burmese make up a big percentage of Utica’s refugee population, and consequently Sa Ban and her husband Har Sen had people on hand to greet them when they arrived. The moment looked more to us like a happy reunion than the shell shock of a family arriving in a brand new world. One of the wisest of national policies is to place refugees in areas where they will easily find community. Sa Ban’s family is a good example of this. We expected their acclimation to be easier, and thus far that seems borne out in reality. Har Sen is taking English classes at BOCES, like most refugees, but the truth is that there are plenty of friends and family around who he can talk to already. He hasn’t found work yet, but Sa Ban has. Their two daughters are in school.

Sakib Duracak

Sakib Duracak fled Bosnia and the violence there in the early 1990’s. In 1997, he was granted refugee status and landed in Utica. At that time, “Utica is a relatively dead city,” he says, conveying some surprise. Sakib immediately got to work. Like a lot of Bosnians who have come to Utica, Sakib works in construction. That they’re good at it is evident mostly in the stucco exteriors they’ve plastered on homes and buildings all over the city. Sakib now runs a thriving business, with a big warehouse/office, and half adozen employees. "After I installed thousands of kitchens, I feel that I'm part of this community, part of this city,” he says smiling, “It's part of me and I don't want to move anymore from here."

Ghiath Edres

Ghiath and his family came to Utica from Syria in late 2016. Despite more than 6 million Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war, only a few have been resettled in Utica. Ghiathjumped out at us right away because we like soccer and he has crazy juggling skills ( Ghiath was a force for the MVRCR team  in the Redeemer Cup, a soccer tournament among Utica’s different immigrant/refugeegroups. He has dreams of playing pro soccer and is now on the Mohawk Valley Community College team while he studies there. At Proctor High School in Utica he scored top of his class on the English Regents Exam and is an ambitious A student. There’s no telling where his dreams and work ethic will take him.

Thet Thet Mar

We first shot with Thet first at her job. She’s a Nurse Practitioner, and it looked to us like she is practically a doctor. She saw one patient after another with a big smile. She’s great with kids. We came away thinking that she seems very well adjusted. We wondered what her refugee story was like--maybe it wasn’t as frightening as some of those we’ve heard. Turns out, that’s exactly how she’d have it.​ ​When we sat her down for an interview, to hear her story, it was in fact hard to hear. In the refugee camp in Thailand her family fled to, she watched her makeshift home burn to the ground twice. The camp was so close to the Burma/Myanmar border that the army there fired upon them most nights. She told she doesn’t tell the story often because she doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. Her goal is to treat her patients well and for their visits to be about them, not her. The positive and powerful way she looks forward is inspiring and bodes well for Utica.

The Azein Kids

One thing that happens regularly with the younger generation of refugees who arrive with their parents is that they have a much easier time acclimating. They learn English in school and they quickly absorb the culture. Given this, it’s going to be interesting to watch these three grow up. Mohammed has been in school since he arrived and Nisren started in 2019 herself. She loves to wrestle and play games with us when we’re over. Mohammed is more circumspect. He’ll wrestle too, but he’s plenty happy playing on his own. Like all kids, they love stealing Nasradin’s phone and playing on it, and watching tv. They loved watching scenes of their arrival here, as we showed them parts of the film. Yasmeen, the youngest, didn't as much. She felt left out! She got teary until we showed them her birth scene. She may wind up being the tallest in the family. Nasradin now works nights while Nada works until about 4pm on weekdays, so they split the parenting. I think they're going to be surprised down the road to see how easily their children succeed here. That's a typical trajectory with refugees. The 2nd generation understands what their parents did to provide them a safe home. They do not take it for granted.

Nada Musa Azein

Not everyone loves having a camera following them around and Muslim women seem to be a group that is among the least likely to warm to it. Nada is shy, and she has allowed us more access than she’d like. Having to care for their 3 children meant that she slowly learned English via television. She told us in an early interview that she was lonely in Utica, missing her family back home. Fast forward 2 years, which you can do in a film, and we now joke with her. She likes seeing the scenes of them we have in the film, but she's glad we're done shooting. She now has a job and drives! Seeing her laughing and at ease is one of the great pleasures we have in the process of making this film. This is at least part of what assimilation looks like.

The Azein Family

Put yourself in their shoes for a minute. You fled your home country of Sudan, but didn’t get far. You spent 6 years in a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia, where you got married and had 2 children. With another on the way, you get word you and your family are going to be resettled in Utica, NY. A long plane flight, your first, takes you there. One of you speaks a little English, which helps a lot. But still, you’ve not experienced cold weather, you’ve only lived in rural areas, your new stove is a novelty, you've never had a job, and now you have to find work. The Azeins are now a family of 5, one American born, and adapting to life in a new world. How well do you think you’d do? That the Azeins are doing so well now in 2021 says a lot about their resilience and strength. It also speaks loudly for the job that the Refugee Center has done, and the welcoming community that Utica is. Collectively, it's impressive.


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