Uticans
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? 

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. 

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.

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.

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.  

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.

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.

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.

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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