In my mother’s house, next to the safe in her closet, are two photo albums documenting our lives from the year of my birth to our earliest years in the United States. They form a bookend: one for life before America, and the other for the time immediately after. It is no mistake that she keeps those photographs next to the safe, which also houses the things she deems most valuable to our lives: our citizenship certificates, passports, tax returns, my high school and college diplomas, and various crafts I made when I was a little kid. At the drop of a hat, she could open the safe, collect the documents that render our existences real and legal, and leave. The photo albums would go along with us, their convenient location intentional. It is not lost on me that what remains of our documented family history remains in two photo albums.
There was a time when the extent of our preparedness rested solely in a white plastic document bag from the International Office of Migration (IOM). Any resettled refugee likely has a memory of this bag. It is perhaps the one universal thing about the refugee experience, which otherwise is highly variable and cannot be approximated. Before departure, a refugee is given this bag, which contains all of the documents they need to continue on to their final destination. The bag travels with them through airport security, long flights across the ocean, and finally to their new home.
One of the earliest scenes in The Last Refuge features the Azein family arriving at Syracuse Hancock International Airport late at night, with their IOM bags in tow. This scene has repeated for decades across America, with the Azein family replaced by thousands of others trickling out of jetways and into arrival lounges. After the Azeins navigate the airport’s infamously complicated exit portals, Abdelshakour, a former Sudanese refugee now employed by The Center, Utica’s refugee resettlement agency, greets them. Speaking a Sudanese dialect of Arabic and wearing traditional attire, he signals familiarity in a foreign place.
This is similar to how I remember my family’s own arrival; a photo in my family’s second photo album confirms my memory, showing my mother and I arriving similarly in March 2001. In place of Abdelshakour was our caseworker, Pavel; a Vietnamese interpreter; and my uncle. Somehow, Pavel remembers it too.
Resettlement is an intimate and disarming process, contingent on both the support of many strangers and the forgiveness of the destination city in ethos. It’s difficult for those of us who have experienced episodes of violence and uncertainty in our earlier lives to surrender trust to people and places who, frankly, have not earned it. My own family began the resettlement process only after my grandfather’s friend had resettled safely in California and sent letters back to Vietnam confirming that it was not a conspiracy. Indeed, it demonstrates miraculous trust that the Azeins allowed for their resettlement to be documented in The Last Refuge.
What happens after the Azeins’ arrival at the airport follows a rhythmic procession with which any resettlement caseworker will be familiar, but yet could only occur in a place like Utica. They are whisked to the city in a quick hour-long drive, and introduced to their new apartment, where a warm meal awaits them. As they enter, their fellow refugee neighbors greet them from the unit next door. They are not the first refugees to resettle into that apartment; the complex is a common starting point for families new to America and has been home to at least dozens. The space is outfitted with new furniture, the bed made with comfortable sheets. The kids collapse of exhaustion and immediately go to sleep, as their mother Nada carefully pries off their tiny shoes, and joins her husband, Nasradin, for a small tutorial on operating the stove and other appliances.
Resettlement has been occurring in Utica since 1979, when Roberta Douglas, watching the plight of Vietnamese American children left behind after the war, decided to act. Working with a coalition of local clergy, government, and educational leaders, Vietnamese families were sponsored and brought to live in the area. As different waves of refugees have passed through Utica over the decades—Vietnamese, Cambodian, Bosnian, Sudanese, Ukrainian—The Center has absorbed refugees into their staff, giving those who best understand the needs of refugees the opportunity to serve their own communities. The Center, in that sense, is a place by and for refugees.
I am very protective of Utica and the people who live there. My protectiveness is not the result of urban ethnocentrism, though I do admit that the unique specialties of our city’s truly cosmopolitan food scene rivals few others. After the United Nations called our city “the city that loves refugees” in 2005, Utica rose to international fame as a model for resettlement. Now, as borders constrict and global displacement reaches historic highs, many once more turn their gaze on Utica and its inhabitants, examining how this city could still be doing the work of welcome so successfully against the odds of shifting policy and public opinion. Writers, researchers, and filmmakers have descended upon our city, examining the lives of refugees and the work of The Center to understand the anatomy of what makes Utica truly welcoming.
Utica is a sacred place for me; the entire city is a memorial to rehoming. Utica is a real-time map where I have dropped pins demarcating the formative moments of my early life: the Utica Public Library, where I learned to read and use the computer; the steps of Kopernik Park, where I opened and translated my mom’s mail from various government agencies; the yellow health center on Hobart Street, where at age six racism first confronted me when a nurse refused to evaluate my mother because she did not speak English. These places substitute the gaps in my memory that our family photos cannot fill.
That place anchors memory is not a novel idea, but when the task of remembering demands so much attention and effort, the sentimental meaning of place increases exponentially. I think about the way that Milan Kundera, a fellow refugee, analogized conflict: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” If I am lazy, I’ll lose these memories, although forgetting is perhaps an inevitability.
My protectiveness comes not out of a desire for authenticity, but rather, for fullness. I worry that people will flatten Utica into one narrative, rendering the lives of refugees within it singular and linear, and without context. The resettlement process is procedurally predictable, but the lives of variability entangled with it cannot be thought of that way. As the awareness of refugees’ plight takes up increased space in the global imagination, a preconfigured image of the refugee emerges, vacillating between the extremes of powerlessness and resilience. When people think of refugees, they either see helpless individuals devoid of agency, or exceptional new citizens with hard-earned success. The reality is that refugees are, at different points in their lives, powerless and resilient, and everything in between. The human condition cannot be essentialized into one adjective.
The risk that every piece of writing, research, or film runs is of reshaping—and thus objectifying—refugee participants into passive subjects, so they can fit the contours of a specific narrative. It is suffocating that little space is held for normalcy. In the quest for sympathy, we have to be sad or sensational, lest hearts and minds may not be changed. But if the goal of resettlement is to successfully incorporate those previously displaced into our everyday lives and communities, there has to be room for complexity, mistakes, and mundanity.
The Last Refuge instead asks for empathy, with an ethic of care. The film refuses to shy away from car accidents, missteps with the state’s unemployment system, and episodes of discomfort and unhappiness. These moments are as integral to family photo albums as a baby’s first strawberry, births, and citizenship ceremonies. The Last Refuge is unique in telling a very American story, without cheapening it into just another tale of the American Dream. Someday, the Azeins may look back on their digital photo album, and think fondly of their city of refuge that they now protectively call home. Or, they may not.