“I am not a Hollywood actor”
To a certain extent, I’ve always been of the mind that America needs to start worrying more about its own people before trying to save the world. Our God complex gets the better of us and we bring refugees over by offering empty promises of better lives and safety for their families while our own impoverished population doesn’t even have such security. However, I’m also very much for keeping our word and if we are going to go to a place like Burma to emancipate the Karen people, we better go all the way. Unfortunately, as Scott Murchie and Brett Williams’s film Nickel City Smiler shows, our government and the agencies attempting to do the right thing are far from perfect, feeling as though once the refugees have set foot on American soil, their lives will turn to gold without any more help. These people go back to their suburban homes and fall asleep with a smile on their faces, anointing themselves saints for good deeds done while the refugees are left crammed in dilapidated houses, alone and hoping to survive a new form of genocide.
Screened at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, the film received the largest crowd of any other I’ve attended this year, mostly I think due to its setting in the West Side of our Queen City. There were a couple walk-outs, and while they could have simply been people who had somewhere to be, I can’t help wondering if it was also because Buffalo is shown in such a bad light. What people may not realize, though, is that it isn’t necessarily the city we need to blame, it is the cavalier attitude of the organizations deluded enough to think they have helped these refugees. They move people from one warzone into another without educating them, let alone the citizens of their new homes. Ignorance is bliss and agencies like Catholic Charities—talk about being shown in a horrible light—move on too quickly, promising to be there to help yet walking away after the government mandated $425 is given and a slum is found. Sometimes they can’t even get that right and end up sticking two families of eight in the same home, two families who don’t even speak the same language let alone ours.
The system is broken; there is no doubt. Even though I may not agree with taking on this responsibility, we are and therefore we better clean up our act and do it correctly. Families like Smiler Greely’s—the subject of this documentary—are trying. They are attempting to assimilate by learning the language, finding gainful employ, and participating in the community. Some take on too much, risking their own freedom for that of their people by standing up against injustice and looking ungrateful in the process. Smiler is the first to say that America is his home, but he also admits he is nothing in the context of this nation. He didn’t leave Burma to cheat the system and get free money; he came for his family, to give them the opportunity to for education—most refugees don’t even know Welfare exists. While admitting he may never be happy or find success, he knows his children will. They will become doctors, lawyers, teachers; they are the future. He’s been in war and he’s killed, but when you see the atrocities he has back home, what choice do you have but to join the revolution? These kids have a choice.
Finding a place working for the Refugee School Impact Program, helping assimilate refugee children—the statistic is given that 98% of new settlers in the Buffalo area the past two years have been refugees—Smiler has also taken it upon himself to be a leader willing to translate, assist, and really be the only person his Karen people can count on. Co-worker and friend Donna Pepero sees his love and compassion firsthand and wants him to keep giving, but also to save himself. Residing in Orchard Park, she attempts to get him to move to the Southtowns, to worry about his children. She wants him to stop risking his own life with gang violence, leaving his family without a father only because he wants to be close to the community so he can help when they knock on his door at all hours of the night. They have no one else, though, and he can’t bring himself to abandon them. The Karen are his family, the children of his friends are his children, and he refuses to let them suffer without doing all he can to help.
Nickel City Smiler is about educating the American population to this issue and showing these refugees have been brought here and placed without a choice. They come to survive, willing to do their part, but the system lets them down, making them into leeches in our eyes, taking food and money out of our mouths. It’s hard to believe we can’t give a little more assistance, a little more compassion and understanding to make the situation work. We can try to teach them English, try to make them feel safe so their kids can play in the front yard without risk of drugs or cars jumping the curb fifty feet and plowing into the porch. Listening to Smiler’s son Moe Joe shows this potential. A highly intelligent, affable, and cute young boy, he isn’t blind to what’s going on. He wants to be here, he wants to learn and make something of himself, but all he sees are ‘street animals’ itching for a fight. What has he done to them? Why do they look at him and feel the need for anger? It’s a sad state when you begin to wish Americans were more like the refugees. We should want them to aspire to be more like us, but we’re failing miserably.
courtesy of Nickel City Smiler official site