Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Resettlement agencies again focus efforts on denial in responding to failures

Posted by Christopher Coen on July 1, 2011

The Nickle City Smiler refugee documentary film is getting more attention in the media. Part one of a three part series of articles came out today at the Buffalo Rising media website. 

…[Scott Murchie] 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…

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… Read more here

Ann Brittain, director of the Immigration and Refugee Assistance Program of Catholic Charities” when asked why her agency placed two families together in one small inner-city apartment claims “they congregate”? Well, yes they do, but what does that have to do with housing two families together? This type of failure to truth tell does nothing to help resolve the problems. The real issue needs to be addressed, e.g. are Buffalo resettlement agencies at over-capacity? Did the resettlement agency have a shortage of housing units at that time, and why?

As far as Molly Short at Journey’s End responding that communication was poor, then what is her explanation for the filmmaker’s first documentary in which they relied mainly on the local resettlement agencies’ information? Was there any miscommunication at that time? As well, improved communication will not resolve many of the facts of resettlement in Buffalo. Refugees have died in senseless violence in the neighborhood. Is it valid to use refugees to repopulate areas of our country that are losing population, when refugees are a known vulnerable group?

Furthermore, resettlement agencies will not resolve their failure to give refugees the minimum-required services, that they freely agree to give via government contracts, until they openly and adequately address the issue. This is particularly true when we are only about one year out from the State Department’s doubling of per capita initial resettlement funding.

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