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A Documentary, some bickering, and my experience with refugees on the West Side of Buffalo: Part one of three.

The current state of the city of Buffalo has long been an enigma in my mind. Notorious for decline and extreme underfunding, Buffalo hasn’t garnished the best reputation over the last fifty years. As a young person growing up in the suburbs, I was told to stay away from the city; it was a dangerous place and I would probably be murdered. As I have grown up, however, my experiences in the city of Buffalo have only been good ones, and almost everyday I learn something new about the city.

My latest fascination came in the form of a documentary entitled Nickel City Smiler. I watched the film with the intention to write a brief summary of it and then probably forget about it, but my humbling experience with the subject ended up going farther than that.

“Why only a brief article?” Scott Murchie, co-director of the film, asked me.

“Hm,” I thought to myself. “Well is there something here that can be turned into more than a summary?”

It was then I began to learn about and experience the situation of the refugees in the city of Buffalo.

Before I watched “Nickel City Smiler” I had no idea that there were refugees in Buffalo, and I wasn’t really even sure what a refugee was. I assumed that Buffalo had little diversity, and that was just another disappointment about it. I was ignorant though, because what I learned about the diversity of our Queen City was incredible.

At first I thought Scott was a little over-zealous. He seemed obsessed with the way refugees were being poorly treated by resettlement agencies in Buffalo, and by their community around them. He and his colleagues would tell me that something needed to change, because these people are so important to the city of Buffalo. Soon I got to know him and came to understand his cheery, outgoing, and passionate disposition, and realized that he truly wanted to help a struggling population in Buffalo.

Scott is a filmmaker and director who owns a film company in Clarence, Chance Encounter Productions. He came across Donna Pepero, an employee at Journey’s End Refugee services and head of the Refugee School Impact Program when his company was randomly selected to do a documentary on refugees in Buffalo. The crew, made up of directors Scott Murchie and Brett Williams, and then freelance camera operator Tim Gera, completed an 18 minute documentary, entitled “Refugees: Buffalo’s Next Generation.” But their interest didn’t stop there. They were only telling one side of the story of refugees in Buffalo. There was also another side of the story, the refugee’s side.

Scott says he and his colleagues began to see the true problems the refugees are facing assimilating into American culture when they began their short documentary. It is hard enough for many citizens of Buffalo already living there to get by, let alone someone who just came from another country.

Getting most of their information from resettlement agencies, their first film only showcased some positive points of bringing refugees into Buffalo. As well as many positive aspects to bringing refugees to Buffalo, there are many negative situations as well. In the spring of 2008, Chance Encounter Productions started filming another, much more in-depth documentary. This time as a way to reach out to the community for help. Scott believes that the resettlement agencies are not doing a good job for refugees, in fact he believes that they are doing a very poor job.

Nickel City Smiler received some interesting feedback. According to Scott, the response was overwhelmingly positive around the community, with people wanting to know how they could offer aid to refugees. The response within the resettlement community was however more mixed. Shortly after my review of Nickel City Smiler was published in Buffalo Rising, I received an invitation from Journey’s End to come speak with them. Of course I accepted the invitation and met with the directors of three of the major resettlement agencies in the area.

First off, if you haven’t seen the documentary, it is based on a family of Karen refugees who live in the West Side of Buffalo. The family is made up of Smiler Greely, his wife MaDee, and their three children, MoeJoe, Poe Kwa Si, and Poe Mu Si. In 2007 Smiler’s family was accepted for resettlement to the United States. Smiler is employed by Journey’s End Refugee Services, and works within the Buffalo Public schools. He is a valuable asset since he speaks Karen, Burmese, Thai and Engliah. He is an academic coach, helping children and their parents adjust to life in America.

The documentary portrays the situation of refugees who are living in poor conditions in the city. For example, there are two refugee families featured, which speak different languages, crammed into a small apartment. A woman, who did not know how to get help for her husband when he was having a heart attack, is suffering with the loss. The film explores why refugees may be having such problems, and what they find is that the resettlement agencies in Buffalo could be doing a better job, well, resettling the refugees in their care.

When I met with three directors from three of the four major resettlement agencies, I asked them about their response to the film. I was curious as to why they were not represented, and I wanted to give them a chance to speak. 

They told me that the film was inaccurate, possibly cut and pasted, and misrepresents the agencies completely. When I asked Ann Brittain, director of the Immigration and Refugee Assistance Program of Catholic Charities, about the two families featured in the film who live crammed in one small apartment, she said that was a completely false situation.

“It’s not that they live like that,” Ann said, “they congregate.”

She explained that on any given day you might see a lot of refugees mingling at one house, since they enjoy being together. I met Tikee, one of the fathers living in that apartment, and I do believe that the film represents Tikee’s situation fairly. Is it the resettlement agencies fault entirely? Probably not, but something went amiss for this situation and others like it to have come into being.

Why are the filmmakers and the resettlement agencies bickering? Molly Short, Executive Director at Journey’s End Refugee Services, says there was poor communication between herself and the filmmakers. Scott says the agencies just don’t want to admit their mistakes, and just don’t have the resources to care for all the refugees they bring in. So what is going on, and why should you care?

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