USCRI: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

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Local Community Comes Together to Discuss a Film About Diversity and Change in America

“What does the word refugee mean?” asked a twentysomething audience member at the Galaxy Cinema in Cary, NC, as soon as the film credits stopped rolling and the lights came on. 

The theater was filled to capacity with locals of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds who came to the screening of “Welcome to Shelbyville,” a film about a rural town in Tennessee grappling with the rapid demographic changes in its community. 

The free event was organized by the North Carolina Field Office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) and Uniting NC, a local non-profit organization dedicated to fostering a sense of community between North Carolinians and refugees and immigrants living in the area.

"I heard the word ‘refugee’ a lot during the film,” continued the young man. “How is it different from an immigrant?” The answer to his question came from Shirley Thoms, director of USCRI North Carolina.  “A refugee is someone who has fled his or her country because of war or due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion.”

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USCRI North Carolina helps those who have fled war and persecution and have lost everything start a new life in Raleigh.  As soon as they arrive in the United States, refugees face an enormous task: to become self-sufficient, contributing members of their new community.  Voluntary agencies like USCRI North Carolina are there to make the adjustment process as smooth and easy as possible from the moment the refugees set foot in America.

Staff and volunteers (pictured below at the USCRI field office in Raleigh), many of whom are multilingual, meet the arriving families at the airport and from there on assist them in finding housing, learning English, and enrolling their children in school.  What’s more, USCRI is dedicated to assisting refugees during their job hunt by providing career counseling, taking refugees to job fairs and interviews, helping them create a resume, offering pre-employment training activities, and otherwise preparing newcomers to enter the U.S. workforce. 

Thoms (front row, second from right) agreed to co-host the film screening because she felt that the message of the documentary—to foster dialogue around immigration-related issues across the United States—would hit a nerve with the increasingly international Raleigh community.  Produced by Kim Snyder and BeCause Foundation in association with Active Voice, the documentary takes an intimate look at a southern town experiencing an influx of Somali refugees, many employed by the area’s chicken processing plant.  Much like the Somali refugees featured in “Welcome to Shelbyville,” many refugees resettled through USCRI North Carolina found work at the local Butterball meat processing plant.

The film, provoking both gasps of shock and outbursts of joyous laughter in the audience during the screening, hit home with the Raleigh community on many levels.  It was well-received across the board, by both born-and-raised North Carolinians and recent immigrants to the area.  Most attendees lingered long after the film was over to talk about their overwhelmingly positive reactions to the documentary. 

“I am an ESL [English as second language] teacher and I was really impressed by all the people who came out to see the film,” said a young female audience member, one of many who got up to speak during the post-screening discussion.  Another person added, “I was really touched by the Somali woman in the film who said, ‘I want to talk to all people.’ She reminded me of my mother.”

Many of those who saw it felt personally connected to the film because it paralleled some of their real-life experiences.  This was the case with Iraqi refugee Akram Yasir Obaid.  “The movie talks about the big issue,” said Obaid, who resettled in the Raleigh area in 2009 and works as an interpreter.  “We live among a lot of people from different countries, cultures, and religions.  No one can say that I am right and you are wrong.  We have to understand each other’s views and look for peace for all people.”

“This film is going to open a lot of citizens’ minds about refugees,” said Youssef Dahous, an immigrant from Morocco.  “I hope that it will bring a brighter future to refugees in the United States.”  Dahous has lived in Raleigh for the past ten years and loves the way the city is embracing its international community. 

Randy Jones, chair of the board of Uniting NC, was thrilled that more than 270 people turned out for the event.  “All these different people coming together. This is the way of the future!”

Top photo: USCRI staffers Carrie Cargile and Nina Keres attend the screening of "Welcome to Shelbyville."

Find out what you can do to help refugees resettled in Raleigh and other parts of North Carolina >>

Read more stories about refugees and immigrants resettled in the United States >> 

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