Often the issues communities face like poverty, homelessness and migrants seem so overwhelming, the solutions so divisive, that we lose sight of the real people affected. Tearful children really do wonder where they’ll sleep at night. Bewildered refugees struggle to provide for their families in a new land. Young Muslim men and women face prejudice and suspicion as they venture out from their close-knit families. From New York to California, these three documentaries respectfully humanize the issues of unsheltered families, new refugees and first-generation immigrants.
Blank-faced with weariness, drooping with exhaustion, Nasradin Azein, his wife and two young children arrive at Syracuse International Airport. As Sudanese refugees they have spent purgatorial years at a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Now, finally, they are being welcomed into the United States by Utica’s Refugee Center, an unlikely mecca for refugees in upstate New York. In the coming days they will receive housing, cash, clothing and support as they navigate a new and challenging land full of opportunities but also pitfalls.
As a former refugee said, “you start from zero.” In Utica: The Last Refuge we watch Nasradin and his family start from zero but adjust to a life completely foreign to them: factory jobs, driving cars and snow. They are without family in the United States, but they are never alone. Utica is proud of its nickname “The Town That Loves Refugees.” Citizens on both sides of the political divide value the energy, cultural diversity and economic renaissance refugees bring to Utica. Nasradin and his family now receive support from Utica, but soon they, like other refugees, will give back to their community in new businesses, renovating houses and sharing their rich cultural heritage.
By day, De Shawn, Nikol and their two baby girls draw and paint on beautiful Venice Beach. At night De Shawn sets up a tent on the sidewalk and they join the thousand other unsheltered individuals in Venice who sleep on concrete and not in beds. In a nearby artists’ studio, Attaway, Rayanne and their young children are living without permission in the studio while Attaway works on his painting. There is no hot water or a place to bathe, but they can’t afford to live anywhere else.
Once a quirky, funky place where skaters, surfers and artists thrived, Venice, California, is now, as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti puts it, a place where “trauma meets high rent.” As tech companies like Snapchat and Google moved in, skyrocketing housing prices and some of the highest rents in Los Angeles County left many people without housing. The award-winning documentary Unzipped explores the contentious issues surrounding homelessness including racism, government policies, zoning issues, trauma and nimbyism.
With their brightly colored hijabs and eager smiles, the six young Muslim subjects of the documentary Hudson, America are quick to answer the filmmakers’ query: “What will life be like for you in five years?” Medical school. Starting a business. A career as a researcher. Their dreams are limitless but the reality for these first-generation Bangladeshi immigrants is bound by understanding that their family’s wishes and hopes for their future cannot be discounted.
Filmed from 2016-2022, the documentary follows two young men and four young women as they experience college and life outside of Hudson, New York. These are tumultuous years of the Muslim ban, #MeToo, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, but it’s also an exciting time of self-discovery. As they mature, they question. Some embrace their Muslim religion, while others, notably the young women, start removing their hijabs. Articulate and thoughtful, these Gen Z teens generously share their experiences as first-generation immigrants in an ever more polarized world.