CHARACTER FRIDAYS

THE AZEIN KIDS (MOHAMMED, NISREN, AND YASMEEN)

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. As such, it’s going to be interesting to watch these three grow up.

NASRADIN'S ROAD TEST

Nasradin is an optimist and as such, bought a car before he had his license. Resilient guy that he is, he was not deterred by failing his driver’s test the first time out. We were there for his second attempt, though not allowed to shoot the test itself. When he climbed back in his car where we were waiting, he looked glum. “I didn’t get it,” he admitted. He looked down.

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.

NADA AZEIN

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 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.

HASSAN ABBAS

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.

ASHLEY BUSTOS

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 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.”

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 locals 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. 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. 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. Still, the hope is that Har Sen will land a job soon too. 

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 5 years in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya, where you got married and had 2 children, with another on the way. Then 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 seen this kind of cold weather, you’ve mostly lived in rural areas, your new stove is a novelty, and 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? 

JAYSON ZAYAR 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 MVRCR, Tracy holds down the financial fort, among other things. And, as the administration cuts down incoming numbers of refugees, she’s had to deliver some tough news over the past 2 years. 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. 

SHELLY CALLAHAN

Shelly Callahan is the fearless Executive Director of MVRCR and has been for six years. She has seen the center through some of their happiest times but as the budget continues to be cut for resettlement agencies she has been faced with impossible decisions. As the face of a government funded agency she had championed an apolitical position. However, the current climate has forced her to move into more and more advocacy and political engagement. She wears the advocacy title well but does believe it distracts from the work she signed on as Director six years ago to do: resettling refugees. 


Among other things Shelly can be seen above shaking hands with a brand new America citizen, cheering for the MVRCR soccer team, and giving a speech at World Refugee Day.

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. He is paid for only one 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 that come through the refugee center deal with their own.

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