World Refugee Day San Diego
Ralph Achenbach is chairperson San Diego Refugee Forum
Fady Hadid is an Iraqi filmmaker seeking political asylum in the United States. His new documentary, "Where We Live" tells the story of a family of Iraqi refugees living in El Cajon. The documentary will make it's San Diego debut this Sunday at the Museum of Photographic Arts.
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San Diego plays a surprisingly important role in international refugee resettlement. It seems that for it's size our region is the refugee resettlement capital of the world offering a new home to an estimated 120 to 150,000 people who have been forced to flee their countries. And so San Diego is about to mark the first annual world refugee Day with a celebration of art and the diversity. Joining me now are our guests. Ralph Achenbach is chairperson of the San Diego refugee forum. Hi, Ralph.
RALPH ACHENBACH: Hello Maureen.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Fady Hadid is the maker of the documentary where we live. Thank you for coming in, Heidi.
FADY HADID: I'm glad to be here.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, Ralph, this is a first of its kind. It is the first annual world refugee Day. Where did the idea come from?
RALPH ACHENBACH: So each year the United Nations with that refugee agency UNHCR commemorates world refugee Day on June 20 and as the San Diego region has emerged as you were just sharing with the listeners as a leader globally and nationally in humanitarian relief and refugee resettlement, the San Diego refugee forum its member agencies decided that it would be a brilliant opportunity to share with the public at large and those who may not have had the benefit of enjoying the vast diversity that comes with that immersion and the diversity and learn more about the cultures that are here and essentially get to know their new neighbors.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What are your hopes for an event of this kind?
RALPH ACHENBACH: Ultimately it would like to raise awareness and the public of the issues the refugees face and their needs but also more importantly the many contributions that those refugees make here as they become our neighbors in their new communities.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This, from what I understand the event will be at the San Diego Museum of photographic art. So tell me a little bit about the art that is going to be on display.
RALPH ACHENBACH: It's going to be a fantastic event, very carefully curated. Visually driven but really appealing to the senses. We will have several top-notch artists there and in fact the award-winning filmmaker of course here in the studio right now as well and also Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Don Bartletti as well as local photography hero, Sam Hodgson who is with the voice of San Diego and Bear Guerra and also the Aja project which is a local nonprofit organization that works with refugee and immigrant youths to produce their own multimedia pieces. In addition to that we will have some music and also dance performances and to kind of top it off some of the refugees will serve culinary delights representing the various cultures present here in San Diego. Just as you may be wondering how much are the tickets, the even better news is that the entire event is free to the public.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The photographs on display are they all from San Diego or do they depict refugee communities around the world?
RALPH ACHENBACH: It is a mix of both. Most of the photography work and obviously the film will be focusing on refugees in San Diego. There are a few contributions, Roberto Guerra's in particular that rely on a photo essay that he did back East in Boston, Massachusetts but that really speaks to the universal refugee resettlement experience. So it's also very applicable to the San Diego region.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are speaking about the first annual world refugee Day which will be honored here in San Diego Sunday, June 19 and I want to speak with Fady Hadid. He has made the documentary where we live. Your film gives a glimpse into the lives of a family of refugees from Iraq living in El Cajon. Can you give us a little bit of background is how these people came to the US?
FADY HADID: The main reason why I made the film is because it is a personal reason. First of all most of my friends and family they left Iraq, they are scattered all over the world and that's the case for millions of Iraqis had to leave their homeland and I wanted to find one family that can be open enough to tell their story and I found them. Their background is basically they come from lower middle class family, working-class family. They have a lot of traumatic experiences back home like kidnapping and loss of a family member they had to leave the country and eventually they ended up as refugees in El Cajon.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What kind of stories do they tell in the documentary?
FADY HADID: It's a very emotional story. I didn't really focus on what happened in the past but I'm focusing on the present and the future and their hopes for the future and mainly about what all means to them because especially when you have to leave your homeland you are trying to find a new home for yourself somewhere else. But they are still very connected to their homeland especially when they still have family members, they still have relatives there. And at the same time they are still trying to overcome all the trauma that they faced in the past.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And the unique thing about refugees are that these are people who did not necessarily want to leave their homes and resettle somewhere else. There were circumstances basically that made it essential for them to get out of where they were and find somewhere else to live. So that must increase the emotional attachment that they have to where they came from.
FADY HADID: Yeah, it was interesting because the film is about a family. So we have the mother and father and they have very different perspectives about that. For instance the father doesn't want to look back and he wants to establish a new home for his family whereas the mother, she hopes some day that she can go back to her family and live with him again there. And it was interesting to see this contrast among the same family.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How does this story mirror your own personal experience. You were born and raised in Iraq. How did your experience coming to the United States compare with the family in this documentary?
FADY HADID: I think of myself as I'm very fortunate in my experience even though I received a death threat back home in Baghdad but I was finishing up college. I was applying for film school here, I was already accepted that the USC film program, the graduate program. So even though I got a death threat, most of my family members were already coming, they already left Iraq. And I was already on my way so it was not too bad for me but at the same time as I said, there are millions of Iraqis who don't have the luxury that I had because I came here as a student. And even though now I am done with school I can't go back home and I'm actually a pending political asylee right now. But I feel that I'm very fortunate because I can speak the language fluently whereas a lot of people can't. They don't have the job opportunities by both Americans and non-Americans face here. So this is basically what's happening.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ralph, I said in the beginning that San Diego is a major resettlement committee for refugees. Why is that?
RALPH ACHENBACH: San Diego area has been receiving refugees since 1975, the end of the Vietnam War and East County area in particular has emerged as the second-largest community of Iraqis outside Iraq. With the conflict in Iraq then most recently a lot more like Fady was alluding to the Iraqis were displaced or forced from their homes because of war violence and persecution. So it was a natural trend for those refugees to be resettled out of place where there already is an established community and there are five voluntary agencies in the county of San Diego that provide those direct resettlement services. And again, the newly arriving refugees then have the benefit of an already well-established community that can provide some culturally linguistically appropriate services to them.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You give us a good history lesson there. Yes, we had a number of Vietnamese refugees establishing us as a refugee community in the 1970s, I believe. And now we have a very large Iraqi resettlement community. What are some of the other communities that have resettled here?
RALPH ACHENBACH: San Diego is also home to the second largest East African community in the United States, the largest in the state of California, but we also see currently other small groups being settled in San Diego such as refugees from Burma and Bhutan. Also people from west Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East of course other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. Really a huge range from around the globe and again that is one of the goals of the event is to highlight the tremendous level of diversity that we are experiencing here in San Diego.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Besides the kinds of problems and challenges that Fady was telling us about this sort of nostalgia for a home, I'm wondering are there any particular challenges that refugee communities face here in San Diego?
RALPH ACHENBACH: The lack of English language ability initially is perhaps the number one challenge because the that impacts the finding of a home oftentimes refugees those who have spent years, decades sometimes generations in refugee camps and other countries don't have the benefit of a formal education and are not well-equipped to enter the job market here and receive intensive assistance from some of those organizations that provide refugee services here. Having said all that, though, it is amazingly surprising to see how resilient and persevering refugees are in really seizing the opportunity that they are given here to start their lives anew and lead lives that are productive and in dignity and are doing just that.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And are San Diego and San Diegans helping refugees make a new home here?
RALPH ACHENBACH: There are number of agencies that provide direct services to the community. We have the San Diego refugee forum that puts on the event is the effective organization of all those organizations that interface with various refugee groups here and in addition to that I think we as neighbors of the refugees are able to support them directly not only by volunteering or donating to those kinds of organizations but also perhaps by frequenting their businesses, by hiring refugees into our own businesses and doing supportive things of this nature.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We hear a lot and we talk about the kind of services that people who are new in our community, what refugee resettlement people need, but we don't often talk as much about what the refugee community gives to San Diego. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
RALPH ACHENBACH: Absolutely, Maureen. Refugees tend to be really hard working individuals and seize every opportunity to lead productive lives here. They are tremendously dedicated employees. Many of the refugees arrive here also start their own business. Some of the caterers, actually all the caterers at the event that will provide some of the tasty culinary delights are refugee owned businesses. One of them (inaudible) bakery in El Cajon on North Magnolia is going to celebrate their grand opening actually this Thursday tomorrow from six to 10 PM and as such provide products and services directly back to the community. Refugees also become homeowners. Their children go to school with us and with our children and they enrich the neighborhoods in that regard as well.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Even though San Diego has this distinction for its size of being this big refugee resettlement community, there must be a lot of people in San Diego who don't realize that. Do you find that, Ralph?
RALPH ACHENBACH: That's true. I often come across people who think the San Diego is the beaches area and who have not heard of Africans or Iraqis living in San Diego never having had the benefit of really deeply immersing themselves into this cultural diversity and culturally diverse environment.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And that's what this event is all about
RALPH ACHENBACH: Absolutely. We really hope to put the spotlight on all the positive contributions and all the marvelous diversity that we have in San Diego from an artistic point of view, from a culinary point of view, music, dance and the whole gamut.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Ralph Achenbach. He is chairperson of San Diego refugee forum and Fady Hadid, the filmmaker of the documentary where we live. Sunday, June 19 San Diego is celebrating world refugee Day with a special free event at the San Diego Museum of photographic arts from one to 6 PM. And I want to thank you both for speaking with me today.
FADY HADID: Thank you so much thanks for having me.
RALPH ACHENBACH: Thank you for having us on the show. See you on Sunday.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tomorrow on KPBS Midday Edition join us as we discuss the top stories in San Diego and get a peek at the weekend preview. If you would like to comment on anything you hear on the show please give us your thoughts online at KPBS.org/Midday Edition or follow us on twitter at KPBSmidday. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. See you tomorrow.