Young Refugees Shatter Perceptions of Reality Through Film

Young Refugees Shatter Perceptions of Reality Through Film

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In a sleek high-rise three blocks from Rockefeller Center, Parbat Chapagai, 17, recalled his early days in New York City, after a life confined largely to the bamboo huts of a Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal.

“Everything was so different, I didn’t know if it was America or somewhere else,” said Chapagai, who was relocated to the United States two years ago with his family. “I had to watch other people using their metro cards and copy them,” he said, laughing.

Back in the refugee camp, where there was just one black-and-white television per hundred homes, Chapagai and his friends would flock to a neighbor's house just to catch an elusive glimpse of the world outside. Now, with the help of a nonprofit organization in New York called Reel Lives, he is making his own documentary films.

Lyle Kane, a native New Yorker, held the first Reel Lives session in a pizza shop last June. He now runs the program alone with the help of three volunteers, and the pizza shop has been replaced by a free office space in the Paley Center for Media on 52nd Street. There, he said, youth gather “to grapple with their stories,” “develop skills for employment,” and make “human rights narratives told from below.” 

Although Kane hopes the documentaries will be of interest to teachers as a classroom tool, he says that for Reel Lives participants, “It’s more about the process than the product.”

He currently works with a dozen youth through his Reel Lives program - six boys he recruited through the International Rescue Committee (IRC) for refugees, and six girls referred through the Lower Eastside Girls Club in the East Village. Each student brings their unique story to the project, and a fervent desire to tell it.

For Chapagai, the program is giving him a chance to share the harsh reality he experienced at the refugee camp, something most Westerners don’t even know exists, or at best, may have a skewed perception of.

“Most people think Bhutan and Nepal are like a paradise in the Himalayas—but they need to know about the refugees,” said Chapagai, who named his film “No Parking in Bhutan” because he said finding a home there is impossible, “like finding a parking spot in New York City.”

Americans have long applauded Bhutan’s idyllic GNH (Gross National Happiness), a standard implemented by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972 to measure well being. But few are aware of the 100,000 refugees that were forced to flee Bhutan in the early 1990s, even though 34,129 of those have now been resettled in the United States, according to a United Nations report released in December.

“I want my audience to be refugees too… to show them that (the United States) is a good place,” said Chapagai. “Now we want to end our refugee lives and make our own identities. In one way or another all refugees are here to make their lives permanent.”

The transition to a stable life can be especially rocky for refugees, says Kane, due to cultural displacement, language barriers, unsafe neighborhoods, inadequate education, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

George Tarr, 19, another Reel Lives student who is from Liberia, said he feels connected to other refugees because they all face “discrimination and resentment.”

In Park Hill, Staten Island, where he moved upon arrival to the United States 11 years ago, he said people “wouldn’t let us [Liberians] play in the park. They thought we’d run around naked because we’re from Africa. Also, we’re getting a lot of help from the government and (others in the neighborhood) are not. They hate that [about] us.”

The largest community of Liberians outside of Africa is in Park Hill, and according to Tarr, many Liberian youth -- including his brother -- have turned to gangs for protection. But Tarr chose a different path, making a documentary film with Reel Lives that shines a light on the neighborhood’s promising future.

“There are people trying to make progress in Park Hill. I’m one of those people,” said Tarr, a student at Bristol College in Pennsylvania, and the first in his family to go to college. “My whole life I’ve had hope to get through hard times. The best thing I have is hope.”

Tarr’s film “Out of the Fire,” became the first Reel Lives project to reach completion, in December.

“It was really hard -- I’ve never made a film -- but Lyle has made it easy,” says Tarr. “He made us feel like his little brothers.”

Holding bi-weekly sessions to work on the films with his students, Kane plans on presenting 10 of the completed projects in March. During each session, he also screens a professionally made human rights documentary to the youth, which they discuss technically and thematically.

Cristine Sanchez, an outspoken 16-year-old daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Peru, said she now analyzes film techniques like “b-roll” and “zoom,” and has a greater appreciation for the impact of film, now that she’s the one behind the camera.

“Film makes you think—where do I stand in the world, and how do I help this issue?” said Sanchez, a Catholic, whose documentary challenges her church’s condemnation of homosexuals. While she and several of the other students don’t have refugee pasts to confront, their projects still address issues experienced in their culture and upbringing.

“I hope when my parents watch mine, they’ll think about the issue for even a second,” she said, tapping the heels of her leopard print shoes, before she headed to film a scene of herself praying at Mass. “Especially being a teenager, when everyone tells you you’re wrong, it’s great to have people listen; to be silent, and watch.”