By Hannah Lee
On Tuesday night, I attended a viewing of the documentary film, Refugee Kids, about an American program set up for refugee children. Run by the International Rescue Committee (founded by Albert Einstein to rescue Jewish refugees), the Refugee Youth Summer Academy transforms 120 kids speaking 26 languages from the world’s hot spots – Iraq, Egypt, West Africa, Tibet, Burma and Bhutan – from “tongue-tied newcomers into confident, savvy New Yorkers” over the course of the six-week program.
We meet Helen, a 16-year-old Burmese refugee, who effortlessly translated from English to Burmese to Chin to Thai to Nepali. There is Tek Nath, who in his first six months in America, did more than most adults: He leased the family apartment, translated for the surgeons operating on his brother’s heart, applied for the family’s green cards, opened bank accounts, and tutored both parents and younger siblings in English – and all the while maintaining straight A’s in his school work. And this from a 17-year-old who had spent his entire life in a rural Nepalese refugee camp where he had virtually no English instruction.
We meet George from Liberia who lost both parents at a very early age and was raised in Staten Island where he was confronted with the brutality of gang violence but has still emerged as a student mentor, exhibiting leadership skills. There are also the siblings who faced long separations from their families: Rigzin and Tashi from Tibet who are reunited with their parents in Brooklyn after eight years spent at the Dalai Lama’s refugee school in India; and Ida and Jennifer from Togo who were raised by their aunt and encountered an unforeseen family tragedy — fire and death of a young sister– upon their arrival in the Bronx.
The directors, Renee Silverman and Peter Miller, added to their footage with interviews in the children’s homes and in their communities. The children narrated their often harrowing back stories in hand-drawn pictures, which were animated by the talented Brian O’Connell. Liz Swados, the beloved composer, recorded an original score before her untimely death. The editor Aaron Vega wove the many stories together into a cogent, short film as his last project before winning a seat as American state legislator where he now serves in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Refugee Kids is the second film by Silverman and Miller, following their teen Holocaust theater story, Sosua: Make a Better World. Miller writes, “It’s something of a miracle that we were able to shoot, edit, and complete Refugee Kids for what might be the lunch budget of normal film, but we were blessed with generous and talented friends.”
The screening at Rodeph Shalom was sponsored by HIAS PA and the American Jewish Committee. HIAS PA runs a similar summer tutoring program, and it welcomes volunteer tutors and donations of books.