Refugees in Utica Share Stories of Tragedy and Hope

Palestinian refugee Haneen Alsaad speaks about her experience surviving the U.S. invasion of Iraq and eventually moving to Utica. (Photo by Ryan Miller)

by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage

It was a packed crowd in Utica’s Tramontane Cafe that crisp October 27th evening. People gathered that night for a story-telling session where a number of refugees and immigrants, as well as several educators in the community, shared stories of tragedy, despair, survival and hope.

The Tram, as the cafe is called by loyal customers, hosted the event. It was put on by Utica Firefly Storyteller Series as part of UNSPOKEN, an annual human rights film festival and forum which has been held in Utica since 2010. According to UNSPOKEN’s website, the forum “seeks not only to give a voice to human rights violations from around the globe, but also to offer practical solutions in order to shape a better tomorrow and give hope to the future.” The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees was also a cosponsor of both the forum and the event that night. This was not the first time the Tram hosted Firefly.

The Utica Firefly Storyteller Series acts as a platform for people to tell unscripted personal stories on any topic of their choosing. Similar events are held across the U.S. and many of them are loosely based off of the popular radio program The Moth Radio Hour. The theme that night was on refugees and human rights.

Many of the refugees who spoke that night now call Utica home. But they all came here from as far away as Sudan, Burma, Palestine, Iraq, Bosnia, Thailand, Somalia and so many other places.

One speaker, Haneen Alsaad, told a harrowing story of how her family survived the U.S. bombing campaigns of their neighborhood when they were living in Iraq, and the sectarian violence that plagued the nation as a result of the invasion. She told the crowd that about how terrified she was when she first came here; she thought someone would kill her once she stepped off the plane. She later learned that not all Americans were not the same as the ones raining bombs on her country when she was a small child. She admitted that even some of her friends are soldiers and veterans. Alsaad is a student at Mohawk Valley Community College and has been active over the past few years in planning and speaking at demonstrations for Palestinian freedom and the rights of refugees and immigrants.

Manal Alawsaj, another Palestinian refugee from Iraq, spoke about the discrimination she felt as a Palestinian refugee from other Iraqis during the U.S. occupation, but how she overcame feelings of resentment and frustration and even helped other students in school who had previously bullied her. Both Alsaad and Alawsaj are refugees from one of the world’s longest-running and largest refugee crises. Decades of Israeli colonialism, genocide and warfare have displaced millions of Palestinians, and all of this has been supported and financed over the years by the U.S. government. Palestinian refugees are denied even the right of citizenship and so it was not until the last two years that Alsaad and her family became citizens of any nation for the very first time. Similar stories exist elsewhere in the world, as in Burma.

Mya Kyaw, a student at MVCC, spoke about her experience not as a refugee but as an immigrant. Her parents are currently trying to receive political asylum in the U.S. The family are Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Burma (also called Myanmar). The Rohingya have faced years of repression, and against considerable odds continue to survive a policy of genocide that the Burmese government has unleashed on them. Kyaw spoke about how her father was an activist in Burma and the family had to flee for their lives. Although many refugees in Utica from Burma and Thailand are Karen, many others are from other ethnic groups, such as the Rohingya. For many Rohingya, like Mya Kyaw and her family, the decision to immigrate is one over life and death. In recent weeks, the Burmese military has actively created a volatile situation in Rohingya majority areas, displacing, killing and raping civilians in the process.

While some who spoke had longer stories, a few were very short, yet just as powerful and illuminating. Dina Radeljas, a sociology professor at MVCC, spoke about the positive influence that teachers have had on her, and continue to have on refugees in Utica today. One of her previous teachers, who she thanked immensely, was sitting in the audience. Radeljas said that she was one of the first Bosnian refugees that moved to the area. The community became so large over the years that today, about one in twelve people in Utica are Bosnian. She shared an anecdote about a class she taught on the Srebrenica massacre. Her class was watching a documentary about the massacre and one of her students told her to stop, and rewind the film. She did, and he told her that he noticed that his father, one of the participants in the massacre, was in the film. She wanted to make a point that everyone has a story, and in some way, they are all complicated, complex ones.

After all, the purpose of the event was to untangle, if only a little ways, some of the complexities of these refugee and immigrant experiences: to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless. All of this was done through the simple yet radical art of storytelling. Story after story of the fear and uncertainty, the depredation and precariousness of people being torn from their lands, and their homes was shared that night. Many of the stories were stories of war and of survival. While some of these wars were launched by the U.S., others were not. Whatever the reasons were for people’s personal migrations, all stories, when woven together, spoke of something global, something systemic in nature. Something that there should be an alternative to, a solution to.

Haneen Alsaad is just one of the many refugees in Utica doing her part to raise awareness to the causes of mass migration and trying to forge a solution to the causes of mass migration and displacement. She has done so though telling her story to countless audiences but also in organizing protests to fight for the right of Palestinian, and other, refugees and immigrants. In the Tram that night it seemed, if only for a moment, that there was an alternative, that people were carving out a better future in Utica and working hard to also make that a possibility for others. Through countless voices, UNSPOKEN was successful that night in pointing the way to a brighter future, one powerful story at a time.

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