SPOTLIGHT TUESDAYS

SOPHIE THET

We 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. I came away thinking to myself that she seems very well adjusted. I wondered what her refugee story was like. Maybe it wasn’t as scary 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 us 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 was inspiring to me and bodes well for Utica.  

KPAW LAY

One thing that can make a department successful is having one person within it who is somehow above the fray at all times. Kpaw is that guy in the employment department at MVRCR. He reclines in his chair, surveying the refugee client sitting across from him, dispensing advice that he knows well might not be taken as seriously as it should be. It’s a tricky position he has, between employers looking for reliable workers, and refugees struggling to figure out the best way to fend for their families and maybe, just maybe, achieve some of their dreams. How do you tell someone who tended his family’s goats, that it’s important to stay in a job for a year for their resume? How can you tell them about our complicated health insurance system? Kpaw knows you can’t really.

MAYOR PALMIERI

For a time it seemed like the US was in a place where the only measure of a politician was whether they’d be a good person to have a beer with or not. That being said, with those qualifications Mayor Palmieri would be a lock for Senator, maybe even run for President someday. So yeah, we’re hoping we have a beer together after the film first screens in Utica. We have a feeling he won’t care too much about how he comes off in the film. He’s focused on his town. A prime example being the “quality of life sweeps” he conducts, walking through a neighborhood to identify problems and fix as many as possible right then and there. His concern will be more for Utica at large. As one of the best salesmen around for his town, he’ll want to be sure we tell the right stories, shoot the right things. He’ll want more of his constituents to stay put, more refugees to migrate to Utica if they’re not happy where they are, more people having fun, more workers, more diversity, more ethnic cuisine…all that.

SELMA JASENCIC

You could say Selma is the one who got away in our film. Her English is perfect and so I assumed she wasn't a refugee. But Utica being the small town that it is, I ran into her father, a Bosnian musician, while shooting at a hair salon operated by a friend of his Goga (check out our previous post about her). When I explained what we were doing, what we were shooting, he told me his daughter worked at the Refugee Center. Big surprise for me! We've become friends since. Like so many of the refugees who work at the Center, she has a story to tell. Just goes to show, initial impressions are often wrong.

GHIATH EDRES

Ghiath and his family came to Utica from Syria in late 2016. Despite the great number of refugees in Syria, over 6 million since 2017, there aren’t many Syrians in Utica. Ghiath jumped out at us right away because we like soccer and he has crazy juggling skills (https://www.instagram.com/p/BPQhG2HjLZO/). Ghiath was a force for the MVRCR team at forward in the Redeemer Cup, pitting Utica’s different immigrant/refugee groups against one another. He has dreams of playing pro soccer and is now on the MVCC team while he studies there. In high school here 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.

SAKIB DURACAK

Sakib Duracak fled Bosnia and the violence there in 1990. Seven long years later, he was granted refugee status and landed in Utica. At that time, “Utica is a relatively dead city,” he says. 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 building all over the city. Sakib now runs a thriving business, with a big warehouse/office, and anywhere from 4-6 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."

PASTOR PAUL

There are two Redeemer Churches in Utica and Paul was the longtime Pastor of the bigger, fancier one, the one on the other side of the railroad tracks, the one where most parishioners speak English. When he moved over to the smaller Redeemer Church, right in the center of Utica, he thought it was a temporary move. But he quickly fell in love with the largely Asian congregation. He has learned to cook Vietnamese and Burmese dishes, organizes fun nights for his teenagers, and his eyes regularly brim with tears when he speaks of his flock. Services are conducted in multiple languages and while Paul may not know the details, he knows what’s going on is good. Paul and the Redeemer Church team are also responsible for organizing and hosting the Redeemer Cup, in which soccer teams representing each of the city’s refugee groups face off in a hotly contested tournament.

INTERNATIONAL WIRE GROUP

We were surprised one day while shooting at the Refugee Center in Utica to find that a company, International Wire Group, had made an appointment to talk to Shelly, Tracy, and Ashley. We were even more surprised when they allowed us to film it. What IWG was seeking was help from MVRCR’s employment staff to identify refugees who might be interested in long term employment. IWG contracted Shana Pugh, a Refugee Center staffer, to conduct trainings with their own personnel to prepare them to interact with and help the company’s new employees succeed. And it's worked. As Linda McKay, IWG’s Human Resources Manager tells us, “The refugees already are on time. They haven’t called in. They don’t leave early. We have a point system, and every one of our refugees has zero points [against].”

PAUL HAGSTROM

A professor at Hamilton College, Paul’s research into Utica’s refugee population is a big part of why we chose the city as the central topic for our documentary. The groundbreaking revelations from his first study were enough to get us excited about what we’d see. After all, how nice is it for a filmmaker to have a big data perspective to bear out the stories they’re aiming to tell? And then he revealed that he was planning a second study to be conducted within our production schedule. We were able to document some of his research, and to witness firsthand his students polling refugees. It’s exactly the sort of analysis that he and others bring to the table that helps Utica be successful at resettlement. Finally, we’ve been on hand as he conveys his findings to interested parties, like the staff of the Refugee Center.

WORLD REFUGEE DAY

Though designated by the UN as June 20th each year, World Refugee Day has such significance for Utica that it’s generally celebrated on the closest Saturday to the actual date. Uticans build the day around a swearing in ceremony for new citizens, most of whom are refugees, as they want everyone to be able to celebrate this critical part of the city’s population. Of course the Refugee Center has a big presence at the event. Executive Director Shelly Callahan has stirred the crowd with moving words 2 years running now. It’s a great chance to celebrate Utica’s diversity and, in doing so, to send a positive message to refugees: we’re glad you’ve come. Please stay a while.

JOHN ZOGBY

John Zogby is a household name in the polling world. But his origins are traced back to our very own Utica, NY where he was born to Lebanese immigrants. He now runs multiple polling businesses, has written books on everything from the demographics of Arab Americans to the millennial generation, and has even been a guest on The Daily Show. For Zogby, polls aren't just numbers, they're personal. He works closely with the refugee center in Utica and provides helpful data and information so that they can make the right decisions and have a positive impact his home town. For the purposes of our film, Zogby will act as pollster, historian, and local Utican. 

EBRIMA BAKARR

Ebrima escaped civil war in Sierra Leone 17 years ago. As a kid many of the things he witnessed are unfathomable. When he arrived in Utica, he quickly identified it as home. He works a full time job and on the side he is a volunteer coach for a U-10 AYSO soccer team. He has a deep love of the sport, which is felt by many of the residents of Utica, and he has a passion to share that with his team. 


It's not surprising that he wants to give back to the community. That's the spirit of refugees in a nutshell. The man who's seen atrocities wants to inspire the next generation to be better. 

ANTHONY BRINDISI

Anthony Brindisi is Utica's Democratic candidate for the 22nd District of New York. Born in Utica, he has a long standing relationship with Utica's refugee center MVRCR. Executive Director Shelly Callahan is a big fan. Above he addresses the crowd at World Refugee Day, 2017, holding an honorary award from the center for his efforts to support their their work. In the other photo, he watches a refugee become a US Citizen. We we're enthused when he was elected to be the Congressperson for the 22nd District, which includes Utica. 

GOGA

Here’s Goga. We believe she is the first female refugee business owner in Utica. She moved here with her husband to escape conflict in Bosnia and started a successful barbershop that is frequented by local Uticans, be they other refugees or American born. One thing is for certain, if you need a haircut, you go to Goga. 

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