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Three World Refugee Days later: some things change, others stay the same

Updated: Jun 28, 2019



We just shot our 3rd instance of WRD in Utica and each one means more than the last. That’s not only because something has changed out in the world but also because something got bumped around in me. We’ve been shooting in Utica for about 2 ½ years now. We know the people speaking on stage, those who put the event together, and many in the crowd. Plenty of them have shared parts of themselves, moments of their lives, on camera for us.


This year I had urged Shelly, the Executive Director of the Refugee Center, to make a speech. Whether it had anything to do with my request or not, she did, and it was passionate. Standing beside her on stage, my camera getting a close shot of her, I could feel how much it genuinely hurts her that so few refugees are coming to Utica now. It hurts me too. She once said to us, “The Refugee Resettlement Program in the US should be considered a crowning jewel amongst the State Department’s many programs.” Utica is proof there. But the State Department is going another way, a direction that will reduce incoming refugee numbers for years to come.


After Shelly finished, Paw Dah Ku, a Burmese refugee, spoke. Her sister committed suicide in the refugee camp they had finally escaped to as a result of having been sexually abused somewhere in all the turmoil the family endured. Her father was killed as well. She finished by assuring us that the family is doing well in Utica, and she has graduated college, all amazing feats considering her journey.

Finally, the speakers ceded the stage to a citizenship ceremony that Utica convenes every year on WRD. Without knowing exactly why, I found myself crying hard. We’ve absorbed a lot over the course of shooting our documentary and now production is nearly done. We are editing and it’s our job to make something great to adequately represent what we’ve witnessed. Perhaps I was overwhelmed by that challenge. Perhaps it was seeing Mayor Palmieri and Shelly congratulate new citizens. Maybe it was knowing how much most of these new citizens have endured to be here, Paw among them, taking great pride in something I more or less take for granted. I’m not sure what the last straw was, but the event got me.


Though I’m no hermit, I’ve exposed myself to more of the best and worst of humanity over these past few years than usual. Watching refugees bring a deep sense of community and an enviable work ethic to a struggling city is humbling. So too is the systematic kindness with which they are received by practiced resettlement staffers. Hearing refugees tell their stories, on the other hand, is hard. The damage humans do to one another is something that will likely always keep me, and a lot of us, from experiencing the deep sense of peace we desire. There aren’t really any sidelines in this game of life from which we watch, distant from it all. We’re all in it. The people getting injured are your teammates.

Thankfully, there is plenty of room for gratitude. Good friends of mine have rallied in support of the documentary, giving us both money and important counseling along the way. I love the team here at Off Ramp doing the work of pulling over 250 hours of footage together into something cohesive and hopefully moving. The film will reflect that life is full of both good and bad. The hope is that we can do a solid job of promoting the former.


In order to raise money and rally support for the cause, we are promising to deliver a great film. Believe me, I know it’s nervy to do this before you’ve even got a solid rough cut. But also believe me that we are bent on succeeding. We owe it to everyone who has given us so much throughout the process. You can trust us to do our best. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m planning to find out.

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