Film Details Refugees’ Journey

Have you heard of the Kunama? Don’t be embarrassed if you haven’t. The Kunama are a tiny ethnic group from Eritrea, which is a country many people haven’t heard of, either.

A war between their Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia, about 60,000 of the Kunama ended up spending years in vast and oppressive refugee camps. The Kunama have traditionally farmed their fertile homeland in northeastern Africa.

The new film “Home Across Lands” follows the struggles and successes of one extended Kunama family that finally resettled in Rhode Island.

On Wednesday, the Albany office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees & Immigrants will screen the movie at the University at Albany’s Page Hall on Western Avenue.

“We hope to raise awareness about refugees and their process of resettling,” said Zoeann Murphy, director of the Albany office of USCRI. “Refugees bring to Albany incredible stories and experiences and an incredible work ethic.”

A refugee is a person who leaves his or her home country to avoid danger or persecution based on religion, ethnicity or political affiliation. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 31 million people worldwide are classified as refugees and in need of services.

Most of the recently resettled refugees in the Capital Region have come from Burma, Iraq or Bhutan, but many also come from the Congo, Afghanistan and Sudan.

Once the State Department approves a refugee’s move to the United States, he or she is processed through one of the 35 USCRI field and satellite offices nationwide.

“We accept refugees based on our capacity, the languages we have on staff and the communities that already exist,” said Murphy. “There is already a large and strong Burmese community in Albany, so it makes sense for them to come here.”

In 2005, the Albany USCRI field office processed 50 refugees. In 2008, it handled 350 and is on track to do so again this year, Murphy said.

Once the refugees arrive, the government will help them for a limited time. Refugees are expected to pay back their plane tickets to the United States, so they look for work and a place to live immediately, as well as enroll their children in school, learn their way around the public transportation system and figure out where to get food. If you think you’re stressed out running daily errands, try doing it in a strange land where you don’t speak the language.

Zaw Min arrived in Albany from Burma in 2000, after spending years on the run from his government for political activism.

“It was democracy for a couple years and then back to a military dictatorship, so I got to run away, because they looked for whoever was in that movement,” said Min, 35.

When Min arrived, there were few services for refugees. Now, he’s a case manager at USCRI and specializes in helping Burmese families.

“If this agency no exist, the refugees don’t know what they’re going to do with themselves,” he said.

USCRI is always in need of volunteers who can help guide refugee families through some of these struggles.

“Mentors help them practice English, use the bus, take care of their mail,” said Jen Barkan, resource manager at USCRI. “They need to be shown simple things, like not to leave their thermostat at 85, or what mail is junk and what’s important.”

In addition to drawing mentors and volunteers, Barkan hopes that the film will make for a friendlier community.

“You might see them at the grocery store,” said Barkan. “We want to let people know that they need friends and unstructured support.”

In making “Home Across Lands,” director John Lavall aimed to show the universality of issues that affect refugees.

“They were farmers who didn’t have anything to do with the war other than they were originally from that area,” said Lavall, who is based in Providence, R.I, where the family resettled. “People in refugee camps are just like you and me. They want to go home. But they can’t, because they will be killed.”

The screening of the film is meant as a promotion of World Refugee Day. The local celebration will be at 5 p.m. June 20 at Emma Willard in Troy. Tickets are $95 for an individual or $175 per couple.

“The U.N. encourages people from all over the world to celebrate this event, so we want a lot of people to come,” said Murphy. “We’re hoping to raise money for utilities and rent for refugees. The more direct support we can give them, the better.”

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