Amanda Bailey never thought that she would end up doing a documentary.
But after meeting Shem – a Syrian refugee living in Beirut – and following her story across eight different borders, she created more than just a film. Through her documentary, “8, Borders, 8 Days,” Bailey created a space to humanize the Syrian refugee crisis as well as spark conversations about what communities like Ithaca can do amidst the resettlement of refugees.
Cinemopolis and hosted a screening of the film on June 6. The screening was sponsored by Ithaca Welcomes Refugees (IWR), a community initiative whose goal is to create a welcoming and safe environment for refugees who come into Ithaca Tompkins County.
Bailey said that she finds the places where there are either large numbers of refugees who have been resettled — New York is one of the top three in the country — or finds places that are very vocal in their anti-refugee sentiment to host screenings of the film. She does this to start a dialogue between refugees and communities they are going to be a part of.
A panel with Bailey; David Rhodes, co-founder of IWR; Samite Mulondo, world-renowned musician and humanitarian; and Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, Common Council member, followed the screening. The theme for the panel, as well as the goal of the movie, was to spark conversation about ways in which members of the community could create a welcoming environment for the community as well as identify with the Shem and her story.
“The idea is if there is enough of these oasis’ - towns and cities - that are welcoming and are vocal in their welcoming spirit, it is going to make the day to day life of the refugees and immigrants who are living in fear right now better despite our national rhetoric,” Bailey said.
All the panelists agreed with the idea that cultural inclusion is critical in making refugees feel at home or safer. Mulondo, who escaped Uganda and became a refugee in Kenya and later in the United States explained that “it is important for [IWR] to teach not only refugees about this new culture, but it is also important for the community to be aware of their customs and cultures as well.”
Mulondo told the story of his first job in Ithaca as a cookie delivery man decades ago. He was stopped by the Ithaca Police because his taillight was out. “I got out of the car and walked towards them, as it was customary in Kenya, to give them my license,” Mulondo said. Thankfully nothing happened to Mulundo, but he was warned to never get out of his car again. “If this happened around now, I’d be dead,” he said.
Stories like these exemplify how cultural understanding and learning can be a life or death matter.
Ithaca is soon to welcome between 25 and 50 refugees. “We need to figure out a way to engage, we need to figure out a way to provide,” said Rhodes, adding one of the best ways of helping through IWR was assisting with translations, cultural impression and creating spaces that people can step into and feel safe. “It’s about finding ways that we as a community can provide [refugees] with what they need and figuring it out together,” Rhodes said.
One of the key ways to help that Bailey suggested is bringing the gap between future employers and landlords and refugees. When refugees resettle, there is no record of their employment or housing history, things that are usually needed in order get hired or rent a home. “There is often a bit of fear with from employers and landlords about welcoming a family that maybe they can’t communicate with,” Bailey explained. “A great way to help is being that bridge between what is familiar to you and familiar to employers as well as people who are not familiar with the situation.”
Bailey explained at the end of the screening that although Berlin has been welcoming to refugees, many of them like Shem are isolated and alone, trying to learn a new language and culture with little to no resources at all. She emphasized that initiatives such as IWR can make the transition easier for refugees coming into the U.S.