THE REDEEMER CUP
If you asked us to point you towards an event that best represents Utica, we’d probably suggest you spend a day at the Redeemer Cup. Hosted by the Redeemer Church with help from the refugee center, MVRCR, lots of local sponsors, and a whole pile of volunteers, the Cup pits refugee soccer teams against one another in an all out 3-day tournament. Food trucks representing all the great cuisines Utica’s refugees and immigrants brought with them surround the 4 fields of play. Adam and I used to work on a show for MLS (the American soccer league) so we can assure you, the quality of play is good. But as Pastor Paul Schilling, organizer in chief, would rush to tell you, “That’s not really what this is about. It’s about getting the various ethnic groups in Utica together.” Last year’s final featured a Kenyan team against a Karen Burmese team. Despite the number of games each had already played, the competition was fierce. The African team won and then we got to see what the Cup is all about: tired players of all different ethnicities clapping one another on the back: the mutual appreciation that fuels the city. Nice.
SHANA PUGHE DEAN
To be honest, when we began making this film almost 2 years ago, 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 25 or so refugees IWG has hired in the past 10 months have been integrated without many bumps. Of course, MVRCR 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 film we’re making in a nutshell.
Not everyone loves having a camera following them around and Muslim women seem to be a group that is least likely to warm to it. Nada is shy, and she has allowed us more access than she’d like, we’re fairly sure. With their 3 children, she’s been unable to take language classes and we often enter the family’s apartment to find her watching cartoons designed to teach English. Still, Nasradin usually translates for us when she’s around and she told us in an interview that she was lonely in Utica, missing her family back home. We wound up on the phone with her this past December and she was laughing and conversing in English to the point where we insisted it couldn’t be Nada we were talking to. We had a good laugh about it when we next stopped by and she confirmed that it had been her. Seeing her laughing and at ease is one of the great pleasures we have in the process of making this film. That’s at least part of what assimilation looks like.
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.
Hassan, a Palestinian, was born and raised in Iraq, but as such could never be a citizen there. When the Iraqi government collapsed in 2003, all Iraqi’s felt the stress and it was worse for non-citizens like Hassan’s family. He was separated from his family, fled Iraq in a genuine chase scene out of a movie, and wound up in Syria. For a time, Hassan worked for UNHCR there, entering data. He believes the experience helped him as a refugee, helped him get to Utica. Arguably it helped him there too, to land a job helping fellow refugees at MVRCR, In witnessing the care with which he prepares a home for an incoming refugee family, you see the care he wished he’d received himself. Hassan builds good karma wherever he goes.
When we first started shooting almost 2 years ago, we believed Ashley must have been with MVRCR 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 MVRCR wants to make big progress and Ashley is the woman for the job. Ashley, together with her co-workers in employment, are 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 MVRCR is happy. Utica is happy too, so add another win.
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.”