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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Refugee Kids: One Small School Takes on the World

Renée Silverman, Co-Director and Producer; Peter Miller, Co-Director and Cinematographer; and George Tarr, Liberian refugee and Brooklyn College student
New York, NY
November 24, 2015

Date: 11/24/2015 Location: New York, NY Description: A journalist interviews George Tarr, a Liberian refugee and Brooklyn College student, about the current Syrian refugee crisis.  - State Dept Image

3:00 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: That was fantastic, thank you. Let’s all give the film a round of applause. (Applause.)

Okay, we’re going to open up the Q&A. Hyun and I have some microphones. Please speak into the microphone and identify yourself and your media organization. We have the filmmakers here: Renee Silverman and Peter Miller, and we also have Sara Rowbottom – is she here – oh yeah – from IRC. She oversees the academy. And George Tarr is here as well, right here in the front row, so he can answer questions as well. I’ll turn it over to them. And our briefers too, when you answer the question, can you please speak into the microphone? Because we are going to make a transcript. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi, Sophie Pilgrim, France 24. Thanks for showing the film. I wanted to know how you met – you started making this film presumably more than four years ago. I wanted to know how the climate concerning refugees and the acceptance of refugees has changed from your perspective, and whether or not you have had or will have any Syrian refugees coming through and how their experiences might be very difficult in the current climate, considering how much animosity there is towards them.

MS SILVERMAN: Sure. I will let Sara answer the question about Syrian refugees. In terms of the film, we started filming in 2009. And it was through a colleague of mine who’s in the film – another producer at ARD German TV, where I’m a freelancer, had told me about the IRC summer school. And I thought it’s a wonderful program and it’s so interesting you get to watch people change over time – over a very short period of time. They come in off the boat. They don’t speak English, some of them, they’re quite green. And then in six weeks they’re little New Yorkers, so many of them. And we got the chance also to explore the different stories and the different circumstances of people coming here to America, which has traditionally been a haven for refugees. And Peter and I come from a family where our grandparents came here as refugees, and so many people have. And so we thought it was an important story to tell.

At the time, it didn’t seem like it was going to be a controversial story. It was a story about the International Rescue Committee doing amazing work with children from around the world and like a window into that work. And then it’s – it took a while to raise the money and to do the film. We got to follow up with the kids four years later – that was very exciting – to show how well people do and how much they become part of the fabric of American life. Now that we got a grant to distribute the film this year, it’s more important and timely than ever. And of course, it’s taking on a whole new significance, first with the huge refugee crisis in Europe, and already interest in the film was building. And since the Paris bombings, it’s now become different and more topical in a new way – in a new and disturbing way – especially with all the discussion about how to approach Syrian refugees and what we see as a shameful response of the governors to – so many governors in America right now and their lack of welcome, and we hope that this puts a human face on the story. And obviously, the refugees in our film could easily have been from Syria. It’s the same story, and we hope that people can see them as the individuals they are with compelling stories that they surely have.

Sara, do you want to say anything about the Syrians?

MS ROWBOTTOM: So the IRC overall in the United States has only resettled a small number of Syrians so far since the conflict began. We will continue to resettle Syrians as they are selected for resettlement in the country. And I think in terms of your question about how their experience may be different from these students, I think, personally speaking, we’re in a particular moment in time and we’re going to see how this plays out, but what we have seen is that despite what governors are saying, at the local level from mayors, from community members who we – our phones are actually ringing off the hook with people who are reaching out and offering their support for Syrians just as for the other populations that we resettle.

So I think we will continue to offer a safe space for refugees that are resettled and we’ll see that there may be broader – or some broader community issues that are at play when Syrians start coming. But the larger numbers that have been requested are not necessarily – those flows are not so great yet at this point, so we will see. But we’ll continue to offer a safe and welcoming space. And I think that as time goes on, we’ll see that the communities that will be receiving the Syrian refugees will also be welcoming.

QUESTION: I wanted to know your background, where do you come from. So you are a producer, that’s right, an American one? I wanted to know how you finance this documentary. Because I saw Puffin Foundation; I would like to know what is Puffin Foundation, (inaudible). And I also wanted to know if you will broadcast this documentary on American channel, French maybe, or, I don't know, German?

MR MILLER: This documentary was a labor of extreme love. Renee and I found this story and met these amazing children, met George, and met this phenomenal group of kids and phenomenal group of adults who service these kids in this wonderful school program. Making documentaries in the United States is complicated and hard and kind of entrepreneurial, and this was a film that was made on no budget at all.

And happily, the Puffin Foundation, a small foundation that supports art in the service of social change, came to help us finish the film and also get the film out to communities. Right now, we’re in the middle of a national campaign to bring this film to communities around the United States, and we are hoping to have it broadcast on television, both here and around the world.

QUESTION: I have two small questions. One is for Sara. I’m wondering how were the kids in the film selected for this program – academy, summer academy. Another question is for filmmakers. I’m wondering, the drawings in the film – did the kids voluntarily draw them for you or did you ask them to draw these? And thank you.

MS SILVERMAN: I think, George, you weren’t too coerced. So I’ll talk about the drawings. So we had asked the – we had filmed the documentary and we were very concerned about how we were going to tell the backstory, because we didn’t want to use footage. We didn’t want to leave the world of the story. But one of the most compelling parts of the film is the stories of – what George went through and the other students that we focused on. So we came upon the idea that they would draw pictures from their story.

And through another film that I was working on I met this fantastically talented animator, Brian O’Connell, and he very generously got involved with the project. He actually came when we had the kids come back – we had the kids come back several years later, and you can even hear the voice change in Rigzin, because we had interviewed him when he was 14 and then when we came back he was 16 and his voice had changed, when he’s drawing the pictures of leaving Tibet to go to India. And so it was through Brian O’Connell that the pictures were animated. And the students seemed to do it gladly. How was doing the animation, George? And I’ll let Sara talk. What was the animation like for you? I love your picture, by the way.

MR TARR: For me, art wasn’t really one of my best subject in school, so – but it was fun doing something for the first time, especially getting – telling your story on camera. So for me, it was fun.

MODERATOR: If you don’t mind, could you just say what outlet you’re with also.

QUESTION: Bing Ying with – sorry.

MODERATOR: Sorry, I’m taking notes, so I’ll bring it back to --

QUESTION: No problem. My name is Bing Ying – B-i-n-g, Y-i-n-g – and I’m from Phoenix TV, New York office. Thanks.

MS ROWBOTTOM: So I actually was in a different – I was with the IRC, but I was in a different role at the time that this was shot, so I didn’t participate in the selection of the students. And Maybe Peter and Renee can say more. I can say that typically if we have an opportunity like participating in a film, we’ll think about which students might be interested in participating and willing. It’s certainly not the type of activity that we would force on any – or attempt to coerce any student to participate in. Their family needs to be okay with it. So we’ve typically gotten to know the family a little bit.

It’s not something we would ask you after we’ve picked you up at the airport. You can – you’ll notice that most of the students had a decent command of English at the time that they were participating in this. So those were some of the factors that we use when we typically try to offer the opportunity of participation in something like this.

MS SILVERMAN: Yeah. And I could just add to that: Many of the students, such as George, were student leaders. So they had already – they were a group that had already proven to be strong students dedicated to the IRC. So Helen from Burma, Tek Nath from Bhutan, and George were all – they were all – they were, like, mentoring the younger students – and Ida as well. So they were obviously all kind of rock stars. So we fell in love with them and we were able to follow them.

And we were also concerned about getting sort of a broad range of different experiences. Some of the students experienced separation from their parents; other students got here and found that things were not easy here – there was a range of things that happened. Tek Nath carried the – sort of the whole burden of his family’s resettlement on his shoulders. We thought that was an important story to tell. So we were also looking for the diversity in experience as well as ethnicity, as well as their star power.

MR MILLER: I had one. Just to add one thing: The experience of some of these students like George and Tek Nath and Rigzin and Tashi – these are extraordinary kids who have been through all sorts of trouble and are as strong and poised and resourceful and wonderful. But it’s not always easy, and we met kids along the way – we – there’s a child from Liberia who had seen terrible, terrible things and for whom it’s more of a struggle. And the importance of school, like the Refugee Summer Youth Academy, is that the teachers and the staff are so wise about how to work with kids from these kinds of backgrounds. And it’s such an important thing for us as Americans to do – not just to welcome people in, but to figure out what people’s needs are and really help them so that their experience is a positive one and they can deal with what they’ve been through and make a good future for themselves.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much. I would be interested – interesting – interested to know how long does this school exist, and how many children went through the school over the years, and how many can you host every summer? And how do you select the teachers who are teaching at the school?

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: My name? I am Waltrad Dennhardt-Herzog; I’m the deputy consul general of Austria.

MS ROWBOTTOM: So the academy has been going for now 16 years – yeah. 1999 was the first year that the summer academy was ever held. It has served over 1,000 students in its time. It’s a little bit approximate because every year there are some students that repeat and come back, but on average, in the past five years we’ve had about 105 students. We have slots for 130.

To select the teachers, we try as much as possible to have New York City certified teachers who have a lot of experience working with diverse groups of English language learners. So we start our recruitment process for all the staff every year in February and go all the way up until the academy starts in July. It’s a quite lengthy process. And we try to keep our teachers returning if possible, because it really – building that continuity in the teachers that know the program – we have three days to train everyone altogether every summer, and so to have those leaders within the staff who know very deeply what the program is about and can execute its goals and lead the other staff to do that is really important for us.

Not sure if I --

QUESTION: And how do you fund the school?

MS ROWBOTTOM: So in the past, we had had public funding that supported the school, back when New York City was a local recipient of Refugee School Impact Grant funding, which is from ORR but is – goes down to the states, and it’s distributed by the Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. So from 2006 to 2011, there was funding for the program through that source. Since then, it has been entirely funded by private sources – so private foundations, corporate partners, individuals.

QUESTION: I’m Jessica Kung from China TV. I wonder if, George, can you talk about your own experience when you joined the camp, and then also the experience that you were mentoring other refugee children? And talk a little bit about your life now – compare those years. Thank you.

MR TARR: When I first joined the IRC camp, I was actually informed by my mentor out in Staten Island. He told me about a program. At the time, I was working in my neighborhood as a – for – African Refuge is a nonprofit organization that was based in Staten Island at the time that – helping kids to – with homework and stay away from gang activity. And I got introduced by my – to the IRC through my mentor.

So my first year in the camp – it was – overall it was a great experience, just working with kids. And through it all, you, like – you build a great relationship with people. Some of my closest friends – I was like – like, I remember they – the program had Soccer Without Borders, which also – was also part of the Doctors Without Borders organization. And so every Saturday we used to play soccer, and a majority of the guys that was on the soccer – well, that was on the IRC soccer team were all Muslim, and only my coach was Christian. So during the Ramadan, everybody else is doing the fasting and the praying, then me and my coach, we had nothing to do. (Laughter.)

So – but the IRC program was pretty much a really, really great experience for me. It helped – it built me up as a individual, as a young man, to be able to help other people who were refugees, because I myself was a refugees when I first came into this country. And through the IRC learning – through the IRC training, I actually was able to take up so many things I learned while I was there and take – use those training to help kids at the Fresh Air Fund, like inner city kids who, like, come from low-income background.

So – but now, as an adult, I have learned to approach certain situations differently. I know exactly where I want to go career-wise – pretty much doing the same thing, serving people. So what I learned at the IRC helped prepare me to become a better person in the sense that I know how to face certain situation or handle certain situation.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Kenny Placencio. I’m actually a friend of George at Brooklyn College. And my question is basically – like, can you speak a little bit on how you used a lot of the experiences you’ve had at the camp to not only be as active as you are on campus in things like student government, but also to inspire students like me who look up to you and use your story as a source of strength?

MR TARR: Wow. So – gee, I kind of need you to repeat that again. (Laughter.) Thank you.

QUESTION: I mean, you and I both know how active you are on campus.

MR TARR: Yes, yes.

QUESTION: Student government, residence hall.

MR TARR: Right, right.

QUESTION: And basically, how – can you speak on just the transition, how you’ve used those experiences, and what is it like to turn that negative into a positive and inspire people like me as much as you do? Like – I mean, that’s a huge thing, and I just want to know, like, what your thoughts are on that.

MR TARR: Right. So – well, growing up in Staten Island – like, I grew up in a – like, a really rough neighborhood, where I can remember sometime we weren’t allowed to play in the park because – newly arrived refugees that just came into the country, so there’s a lot of discrimination. But through all those circumstance, I learned how to handle them through reading and being locked up in the home by my grandmother. (Laughter.)

So what I learned at the IRC actually prepared me to be able to, like – what I learned and experienced out in Staten Island at the IRC prepared me to be able to help other individual – other kids who are not just refugees, but also who came to the United States or were also here before I came here, to face their situation, whatever – depending on whatever their situation is, to look at it in a different way. Like, I always tell myself that your greatest day could be – your worst day could be somebody’s greatest day. So when I’m having a bad day or when somebody else is having a bad day, I always tell them you have to look at it from a different perspective, that there’s somebody else in the world that’s probably having a – worse than you.

So being at Brooklyn College, I can remember my first year – my second year at Brooklyn College, I was on my way to school and I got mugged. So when I – when that happened to me, it actually prompt me to do something about it, and that was through, like, running for student government. And when I ran for student government, even though I didn’t win – but also – I also helped my other friends to get into office, because it – it prompt me to be able to, like, make a change, like for better security on campus. And today, I kind of see that security on campus is much better than when I first started there.

And then, when I first started also, I didn’t know how to, like, get into clubs, because I wanted to become part of clubs. But I didn’t know how to, so I started working at the clubs – the student clubs office, and whenever student come in and they want to know how to, like, join a club, I’m – I know exactly – like, how to go about it, because when I first started, I had no idea how to, like, join a club. So it prepares me to be able to, like, guide student who are, like – guide other student who are, like, new to the school. And it helps me to tell them where to go, where to go for help. And I think stuff like that – it makes me feel good about myself to be able to help other people or be a influence to other people, I guess.

QUESTION: I want to ask one more question for George. I’m from Staten Island too, by the way.

MR TARR: Oh, great.

QUESTION: Yeah. But my question is: As a former refugee, what would you say to the governors who has made hostile statements to the refugee regarding the Syrian refugee crisis? What kind of message would you like to send to them?

MR TARR: Well, honestly, I just want, like – as a American, you have to remember that this country was found on a principle of immigration. This country was founded by immigrants. So you all have to remember that the greatest thing anybody can do is extend a helping hand to other people who needs it. So, I mean, I understand about the whole safety – the American people’s safety comes first. Everybody’s safety comes first; everybody’s lives matters. But you can’t throw somebody into the bush because of other people action, I guess.

MODERATOR: Any other questions?

I have a question. Did you show the film to the families, and what was their reaction?

MS SILVERMAN: We’ve shown the film to as many people that we could, because we all know New York is a very expensive place to live. So – a lot of people did leave the New York area. We had a screening at the Rubin Museum with George and with Tek Nath and their families, and the reactions were very positive and very strong. And I would love to show it to everybody, and as we go into wider distribution, I will reach out to the families where – I think some are in Pittsburgh and other places – Detroit. We have many screenings planned, so I hope they can come to those.

MODERATOR: Well, we thank you for the film. George, thank you for coming; Sara as well. It was amazing. Thank you all for being here, and I think they will be available if you’d like to do follow-up one-on-one interviews. Thank you. (Applause.)

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