A Feature Film Is Born: Seeing Home Through The Eyes Of Lancaster's Refugees
By David B. Godin
Rasha, my wife and creative partner, and I have been participating in many film fundraising conversations recently in Lancaster County – as we are on the verge of launching a comprehensive crowdfunding campaign for our debut feature film, Creek Don’t Rise. These meetings have led us on a journey of exploring the County together, and meeting with some of Lancaster’s most creative, philanthropic, and civically-engaged leaders. Overall, the response to our project has been unbelievably positive. We tend to hear a lot of curious, thoughtful questions in regards to the project, but one question that always come up is: “where did the idea or concept of the film come from?” A pretty basic question, but it always tends to provoke our emotions and imaginations with responses that lead to deeper and tougher questions for us, together and individually. This blog post is dedicated to taking a stab at exploring-in-depth, not necessarily answering, this question as best I can right now.
As I stated in our first blog post, an early inspiration for the film was reading former Lancaster City Mayor Rick Gray’s 2017 Newsweek article, “Why I’m Proud to be Mayor of America’s Refugee Capital.” This led Rasha and I to contact the amazing people at Church World Services in Lancaster County, who have been successfully resettling refugees in Lancaster for multiple decades. The team at CWS was so kind to set up around ten in-person interviews with local Lancaster refugees which I conducted over a few week period in 2017. Needless to say, after these interviews, I was not the same person I was before I started. But before I get into what happened in those interviews and experiences, I want to go back in time to 2013, and my first experience with a local Lancaster refugee.
It was the fall of 2013, I was living in Lancaster at the time, and I had read an article in the local newspaper detailing a story of a young local Congolese refugee named Terry Kasonga Mulumba. I was very much drawn to Terry’s story story and decided to find a way to meet him, which I did with a little help from Gary Hobday, the director of Lancaster Refugee Coalition at the time. We drove to Terry’s family just outside of Lititz, PA. Terry lived with his mother, his younger siblings, and a few other family members. Over the course of three hours, Terry told me his entire life story up until the moment in which we were sitting. I was in awe, disbelief, and felt overwhelming gratitude for his openness and graciousness. The horrors and tribulations of his journey to the United States — it was somatic shock to my system. As I took some time to gather myself, there was Terry with his ebullient, shining smile. He invited us to sit with his entire family and eat a home-cooked meal. As we ate, long silences punctuated the conversation, but the silences were greeted with warmth, humility, and genuine presence. After hearing about so much horror, all I felt was peace. I remember leaving Terry’s home with a slight feeling of envy – Terry and his family knew how to simply just “Be” together as human beings. This “Being-ness” seemed to contradict every fiber of my American experience of “doing, moving and doing.”
Back to 2017 – one of my first interviews with Lancaster’s refugee population was with a young man from Somalia, Mustafa O. Nurr. He, like Terry, had lost his father in his home country and had to become the “man” of the household at a young age. Mustafa similarly shared with me the horrors of his family’s journey to the United States. During our conversation in his family’s home in downtown Lancaster, I was blown away by a simple act – they had left the front door to their home wide open and it remained so the entire time I conducted the interview. Over the course of an hour or so, multiple neighbors, friends, and acquaintances just walked into the home to say hello without a specific intention. No one in Mustafa’s family asked - “Who are you? Why are you here? This isn’t your property.” Instead, each face that entered was greeted with a gentle “Welcome. How are you? Come in. Let me get you something to eat. Some tea?” I honestly could not believe what I was seeing. I remember sitting there and thinking - “I grew up six miles from this house in a West Hempfield suburb. We never left our front door open, and we loved our neighbors – we always felt safe. It is just not something we did – ever. But why?” Author Mark J. Dunkelman wrote a brilliant book released in 2014 entitled “The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community.” In the book he extrapolates on my very question. He says – and I am paraphrasing –
The open door at Mustafa’s home came to symbolize a wound that I didn’t quite know I had at the time, which was a deep, primal yearning for this sense of constant community – of constant belonging. An ever open front door. At the time I was reading a 1973 book entitled “We The Lonely People: Searching For Community” by American author Ralph Keyes. The book explores the state of American community in early 1970s America and it was astonishing how so many points in the book resonated with me forty plus years later. Keyes states in the book that the three things Americans value more than anything else are “privacy, convenience, and mobility.” Even more poignantly, he says –
Keyes goes on to say that that “being known whole” in one community is a deep longing for many, many Americans. As I began to develop multiple friendships/relationships with Lancaster’s local refugees, Keyes’ words began to embody the contrast between my experience of Lancaster as an American, and the refugees experience of Lancaster as foreigners.
One such relationship stood out to me. This one happened to be with James Magot, 38, a former Lost Boy refugee from Southern Sudan. James had arrived in Lancaster in early September, 2001, just before 9/11 happened. He told me the horrors of being a child soldier, crossing the Sahara desert twice before age 12, and finally making his way to safety in different refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. He belabored the fact that he had been living in the United States (Lancaster) for a longer period of time than he ever lived on the African continent. In a subtle tone, he was proud of this statement. James and I had really hit it off and began to spend quite a bit of time together. One particular day in 2018, James and I were walking the streets of Lancaster City and seemingly everyone and their mother knew James. Literally everybody. People would yell greetings to him from cars, apartment windows, the sidewalk – everywhere. I thought, wait a second – “am I not the one who grew up here? What is going on here?”
James, Mustafa, Terry, and many other current and former refugees come from more collectivist cultures where there is no “I” necessarily in their worldview. Many of their identities are formed within the context of both smaller and larger groups. “We” is the way many of these individuals define anything within their lives. Spending time with James, Mustafa, Terry and others actually feels like time itself is slowing down – closer to the actual rhythms of the Lancaster community, closer to our own biological clocks. They each see things right in front of them – their neighbor needing someone to hold their groceries while opening the front door, for example. They are not constantly racing to complete a litany of daily tasks and errands, they simply live, moment by moment, working hard, yet enjoying the passage of time. The sense of their cultural identity is so firm, their bonds to others so intimate, that even amidst the tragedies they all suffered, they are already “in and of” community in Lancaster. It is quite difficult to describe.
I deeply yearn for and crave that same sense of togetherness and constant community that is so antithetical to my own exposure to Rugged American Individualism. That is not to say that I never felt a sense of community growing up in Lancaster, I absolutely did. However, it simply is not the same as what I experienced with the Lancaster refugee communities.
It is this hunger for constant community in a contemporary, sometimes alienating, American landscape that led to the seed of the idea and overall concept for our film, Creek Don’t Rise. The film, a documentary/narrative hybrid, will feature James, Mustafa, and other members of the local refugee/immigrant communities portraying versions of themselves.
In conclusion, I would like to add that it is my deep personal belief and conviction that we are privileged as Lancastrians to live amongst and welcome refugees into our beautiful community. The richness provided by those from other cultures enhances our collective life experience. We should not forget that in the end, most of our forbears were refugees during other historic periods.
What’s the film about?
A former South Sudanese refugee living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, befriends a local woman with manic disorder. One entrenched in community, the other deeply isolated, they each cope with being restricted from seeing their nearby children.
Where are we in the process of making the film?
Glad you asked! Our current goal is to begin production of the film in the fall of 2019. However, we have to fund the film first. As stated earlier, we are weeks away from launching a comprehensive crowdfunding campaign for the project, where we will be seeking donations from the public - like you! In return for your gracious donations, you’ll get all kinds of cool stuff such as: Associate/Executive Producer credits, potential roles in the film, behind the scenes look at the making of the film, and a whole lot of other goodies.
How can you stay updated on our progress and about or crowdfunding campaign?
If you are interested in staying up to date about Creek Don’t Rise, please like our Facebook page, follow us on Instagram @autopilotofffilms, and continue to read our blog about at the project here: www.autopilotoff.tv/creekdontrise
You can also contact us here: email@example.com
-David B. Godin
Film Director & Co-Founder of Autopilot:Off