Stories

#WhyImHere: Refugees and the Mohawk Valley

A documentary for the #WhyImHere online campaign, which started four weeks ago to help raise money for the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.

#WhyImHere is an online campaign that started four weeks ago to help raise money for refugees in Utica and the Mohawk Valley. As part of the project, we set a goal to reach $5,000 to donate to the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.

Through writing stories, producing podcasts, creating content on social media and shooting a documentary, we were able to make our local community act and donate to this worthy cause. With just a few days remaining, we hope you can help us reach our goal.

In this documentary, we present the stories of four refugees: Imad Rajb from Iraq; Bikash Regmi from Bhutan; and Hana Selimovic and Selma Jasencic from Bosnia. After watching these six minutes, perhaps you will have a clearer idea about the refugee crises in this world.

We encourage you to watch this documentary and support this campaign, and please consider supporting the MVRCR and the local refugee population in the future.

Kenyan Refugees Escape Hunger, Foster Brotherhood In Utica

Their lives were always consistently inconsistent – until they finally settled in Utica, New York, in 2007, three years after arriving to the U.S. as refugees.

Abdi, Yusuf and Ibrahim Maalim stared out of their apartment window in Buffalo, New York, and watched with amazement as snowflakes rocked back and forth in the brisk air, landing delicately on the busy road below. They weren’t expecting a weather-caused school delay or anticipating a winter holiday.

It was just their first time seeing snow.

“We were like – ‘what’s this?’” Yusuf said. “It’s … snow. I didn’t know what it was – but it was cold.”

The three brothers and their mother experienced enough change for a lifetime in merely 24 hours. The cars, paved roads and people looked much different in Buffalo than they did in Kenya, but the notion of having to adjust to an unfamiliar environment wasn’t new. Continue reading “Kenyan Refugees Escape Hunger, Foster Brotherhood In Utica”

Growing Up American in a Bosnian Refugee Family

A sense of being isolated can be an all too familiar feeling for a refugee living in America, but feeling like an outsider as the only American-born member of a family of refugees is uncharted territory for some.

A sense of being isolated can be an all too familiar feeling for a refugee living in America, but feeling like an outsider as the only American-born member of a family of refugees is uncharted territory for some.

Dzenela Becic is the youngest in a Bosnian refugee family of five with one key distinction from her mother, father and two older brothers — she is the only one born in the United States. Becic, 21, was born in Utica, New York, one month after her family resettled in the United States as refugees as a result of the Bosnian War.

Despite being the only natural-born American in a family of newly relocated refugees, Becic still went through the same experiences as her parents and siblings. She had to learn the English language, adapt to the diverse Utica City School District and find a place among her peers — but it was still different. Continue reading “Growing Up American in a Bosnian Refugee Family”

Bosnian Refugee and Utica College Graduate Wants to End the Stigma

Mahira’s story is one of many that Bosnian refugees brought with them to the United States in the late 1990s, looking for a life that would be better than the country they call home.

Shortly before Mahira Patkovic was born, her parents were being held as prisoners.

They were fleeing their hometown after their house was burned to the ground. While trying to flee to a Bosnian stronghold — as Serbian forces controlled 70 percent of the territory — they were in the town of Vitez when they were captured by Croats.

When Mahira was born in 1992, it was in the middle of the Bosnian War. For this corner of the world, it was a confusing time, fueled by strong ethnic beliefs and religion. In the middle of the conflict, like many other young families, were the Patkovics.

The following timeline showcases Bosnia from the years 1908 until present.

The Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) wanted a free and independent Bosnia while the Croats (Croatian Bosnians) and Serbs (Serbian Bosnians) wanted Bosnia for themselves, respectively. The Serbs went on an ethnic cleansing campaign to create a “pure” Serbian state. Continue reading “Bosnian Refugee and Utica College Graduate Wants to End the Stigma”

Episode 3: Palestinian Refugees Start a New Future in Utica

Manal Alawsaj describes what she calls her moment of truth — who she was meant to be and what she wanted to do.


Manal, Noor and Suroor have made it to America and are regular inhabitants of the Utica community. The sisters discuss what it is like to assimilate into American culture and how being raised in two different areas — Iraq and Utica — has shaped them into who they are today.

Even though the sisters have experienced racism and Islamophobia, they still remain active in the ongoing fight for social justice. They have fully immersed themselves into sports and extracurricular activities and are still giving back to the organization that brought them here by working with MVRCR.

About the Timeline:
The timeline below covers the many different events that led to the Alawsaj sisters resettlement to their present lives in Utica, N.Y.

Episode Two: Palestinian Family Moves from Iraq to Al-Waleed

The Alawsaj family remains hopeful and do what they can to survive as they wait for their resettlement case to become successful.

 

In 2007, the Alawsaj sisters leave their grandmother’s home in Iraq and move to the Al-Waleed refugee camp by the border of Iraq and Syria. Fearful of the violence and death that followed Palestinian families in Iraq, the girls’ mother makes the decision to move in hopes of providing a better life for her family.

Unfortunately, life in the camp is extremely difficult. Resources are scarce and large families are housed in tents with no plumbing or proper shelter from the rain or heat. Not only do the sisters deal with natural obstacles such as lack of water and fires, but the threat of violence still lingers in the camp.

However, the Alawsaj family remains hopeful and do what they can to survive as they wait for their resettlement case to become successful.

Nearly all of the Middle East’s refugees have come from Syria, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan the past several years

Episode 1: Three Palestinian Sisters, One Journey

In this first podcast of three, we meet Manal, Noor and Suroor Alawsaj. The sisters, who are of Palestinian descent, were stateless, third-generation refugees living in Iraq. 

This episode features an introduction to our story subjects, the Alawsaj sisters.

In this first podcast of three, we meet Manal, Noor and Suroor Alawsaj. The sisters, who are of Palestinian descent, were stateless, third-generation refugees living in Iraq.

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The ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflicts in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank forced the Alawsaj family to seek refuge in 2007. In 2010, the sisters’ lives change when they left the Al-Waleed refugee camp to come to America.

Since then, the Alawsaj family has embarked on a journey that has landed them here in Utica.

Continue reading “Episode 1: Three Palestinian Sisters, One Journey”

A Bosnian Refugee; A Desire to Change the World

At the time, Selma Jasencic didn’t have a full grasp of the complexities of war, but now as a political science major, she is determined to go back and make a difference.

Selma Jasencic is a refugee from the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her parents decided to leave the war-ridden country when she was just a child to give their daughter a better life.

At the time, she didn’t have a full grasp of the complexities of war, but now as a political science major, she is determined to go back and make a difference.

The war is no longer and Jasencic wishes to return to Bosnia and help the country regain its footing. She wants nothing more than to go back and teach English to the people of Bosnia so they can come to America with a full command of the language while searching for the same opportunities she was given.

Watch her story above and come back Dec. 4 for a longer documentary featuring Jasencic.

Bosnian Refugee Chases Her Dreams in a Perfect Utopia

Hana Selimovic, 23, is a refugee from Bosnia. Alongside her mom, dad, brother and sister, they viewed America as a perfect utopia to live out their dreams.

 

Hana Selimovic, 23, is a refugee from Bosnia. Alongside her mom, dad, brother and sister, they viewed America as a perfect utopia to live out their dreams.

Selimovic is a graduate of Proctor High School and received her associate’s degree from MVCC.  She now works at The ARC Oneida-Lewis working as a program manager.

Her family owns the Bazaar Grill & Lounge, a restaurant in Utica featuring Bosnian cuisine. It is a perfect reminder of what home tastes like.

Watch her story above and come back Dec. 4 for a longer documentary featuring Selimovic.

After Bhutan, a Refugee Finds a Home in Utica

His early life was defined by statelessness, the act of being denied citizenship. In his refugee camp, he witnessed the deaths of many people — including children — as a result of bad sanitation, the lack of nutritious food and poor health care.

Bikash Regmi was born in Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom between Asia and China, however, his family was forced to leave his birthplace when he was 7 years old.

He then spent almost 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal.

His early life was defined by statelessness, the act of being denied citizenship. In his refugee camp, he witnessed the deaths of many people — including children — as a result of bad sanitation, the lack of nutritious food and poor health care. These experiences and untold miseries fed his drive and inspired him to pursue a career in the health field, allowing him to provide care and compassion to needy and less fortunate people. Continue reading “After Bhutan, a Refugee Finds a Home in Utica”

Iraqi Violinist Builds From Scratch in Utica

He is a musician, a father and a husband. And also a refugee from Iraq. Music represents his passport to the world. Rajb came to Utica last year to start a new life.

“Music is beautiful everywhere.” — Imad Rajb

He is a musician, a father and a husband. And also a refugee from Iraq. Music represents his passport to the world. Rajb came to Utica last year to start a new life.

Rajb was a well-known violinist in the Arabic orchestra in Dubai but now he is building his musical career from scratch here in Utica. By volunteering to play the violin, Rajb  decided to give back to the community that welcomed him and his family.  

With his family, Rajb is coping in order to get used to the new life and new traditions here in Utica.

Watch his story and come back Dec. 4 for a longer documentary featuring Rajb.

 

Mohawk Valley Couple: From on the Run to Finding Love in Utica

Flobert Kadja and his wife, Louisa, both have different stories of how they arrived and made a home in Utica. They both came from two different countries and left due to two different conflicts, but like all great love stories, they overcame their struggles and found each other–and love in the end.

Flobert Kadja and his wife, Louisa, both have different stories of how they arrived and made a home in Utica. They both came from two different countries and left due to two different conflicts, but like all great love stories, they overcame their struggles and found each other — and love — in the end.

Louisa is a former refugee from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, who spent most of her teenage years in refugee camps located in neighboring West African countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, fleeing from one to the next when the environment became too violent to stay. Flobert sought political asylum from his home country, Cameroon. Now, they live peaceful lives with their children.

Their pasts, though, lend insight into larger global struggles, but they know how fortunate they truly are in the Mohawk Valley — thousands of miles from where they were born. Continue reading “Mohawk Valley Couple: From on the Run to Finding Love in Utica”

From Malaysia to Utica, Refugee Adapts to Life in U.S.

Although the family spent the majority of their lives in Malaysia, their refugee status lists their country of origin as Myanmar due to the resettlement process, one that is complicated to understand.

With a textbook similar in dimension to the Yellow Pages and chapters covering everything from the pre-Columbian era to present day, reading is a core element of Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH), which would challenge any student, let alone one who is a self-taught English speaker of only two years.

Mohamad Faiz Kamal Ahmad, 20, is nearing the halfway point of his junior year at Thomas R. Proctor High School in Utica, New York. He is challenging himself this semester by taking upper-level courses, like APUSH, to earn future college credit, an opportunity he would never have had in his home country.

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Mohamad Faiz Kamal Ahmad, 20, holds a neighbor’s kitten. (Photo by Samuel Northrup)

In cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (MVRCR), Kamal Ahmad and his family moved from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as refugees and have called the city of Utica home since September 2015. Parents Kamal Ahmad Bashir Ahmad, 51, a Rohingya originally from Myanmar, and Afifah Haji Ashari, 45, from Indonesia, sought economic opportunity as well as an improved education for Kamal Ahmad and his two siblings Mohammad Fariz, 14, and NurShafiqah, 10.

Although the family spent the majority of their lives in Malaysia, their refugee status indicates their country of origin as Myanmar due to the resettlement process, one that is complicated to understand. Continue reading “From Malaysia to Utica, Refugee Adapts to Life in U.S.”

Myanmarese Refugees Find Stability in Utica

Since Oct. 2016, more than 220,000 Rohingya people have escaped across the Bangladesh border and reside in makeshift camps, just as Kyi’s family did in 2004.

Kyi Kyi was preparing lunch with her in-laws after church when she heard her name called from outside. She peered out her kitchen window, seeing five men sitting on their motorcycles and repeatedly yelling her and her husband’s name loud enough to drown out the sound of roaring engines.

Kyi’s neighbors warned her to be careful if these men without uniforms pulled up beside her home — some that answered the door never came back. Fearing the safety of her 9-month-old daughter, Kyi and her husband gathered the courage to go outside and speak to the men, who eventually forced the young couple to come with them.

Long before she was separated from her husband, placed in different rooms and questioned for four hours by the unidentifiable officers, Kyi knew that Myanmar wasn’t going to be a permanent home for her family. She remembers a strike organized by the country’s youth in 1988, when students from different ethnic groups protested the military-led government, and the societal fear that resulted from her people’s demand for what are basic human rights.

Almost three decades later, Kyi and her family have found the comfort and stability they were desperately yearning for in Utica, New York as refugees – a label they’ll carry with pride forever. Continue reading “Myanmarese Refugees Find Stability in Utica”