The Center

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 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.


As Chief Operations Officer at the Refugee Center, 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. 


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).


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.”


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.


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.


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.

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