On Wednesday, Jan. 31, filmmaker and comedian Ben Tumin gave a lecture about his new documentary discussing a resettlement of refugees in Germany and United States. This lecture is a part of “Monsters to Destroy,” or M2D, a multimedia performance tour conducted by Tumin and Human Rights First and Vets for American Ideals (Monsters to Destroy, “About”). In addition to giving a speech, Tumin also utilized the documentary, photographs and recordings to convey his opinion about refugees. The event was organized by Vassar’s History Department and Vassar Refugee Solidarity.
Tumin started his presentation by introducing a quote from John Quincy Adams: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Tumin explained that this quote can support the argument of isolationists who believe refugees should be kept out from United States. They believe refugees are security threats, do not give back and are not like us.
However, through interviewing five refugee students from Syria, Tumin created a documentary opposing the isolationists’ arguments. In his film, several students discussed the dreadful condition endured by refugees in their home countries. One student described his memory of escape. “They started to move a truck and there was only a one small tiny window. There was not much oxygen and I really thought that I’m just gonna die now…and children were crying and some women were also like yelling, and for me it was just more stressful.”
Another interviewee recalled, “You should follow ISIS, government, and the opposition, or if you don’t, you would be brought in prison, tortured, and slaughtered, and everything. It was not nice.”
Furthermore, one student clearly expressed his opinion that he would never go back to his country unless it abandons dictatorship and restores democracy. Tumin said that these anecdotes are shocking but at the same time, they are real stories.
He also touched briefly on economic impacts of refugees. Tumin pointed out the arguments of isolationists that refugees do not give back. He acknowledged that refugees can cost a certain amount in a short term, but emphasized that it cannot be a justification to stop accepting refugees. He also argued that, in the United States, refugees are expected to work for a certain amount of time and pay back the price their resettlement cost. Clearly, as he pointed out, the opinion that refugees do not give back is misleading.
Tumin talked about how refugees are not threats and are similar to those in the countries giving them refuge. Many of his interviewees were happy to move to Germany since they could receive the humanistic respect that was often violated in their home countries. As a result, Tumin said, rather than breaking the laws or creating a disorder, refugees are people who try their best to adapt and follow the new culture.
Moreover, the documentary discussed the hardships refugees face in dispelling negative stereotypes. One interviewee told him that after horrible crimes committed by ISIS, normal Muslims were forced to justify themselves to people that they are not related to ISIS; he emphasized that ISIS has not only forced refugees to flee their countries but has also destroyed Muslim community. Tumin also said he loved spending time with the refugee students he interviewed because they were such great people and shared many similarities with him. For example, in the video, students were interested in American drama series “Murder, She Wrote,” heavy-metal music and casual youth culture.
During the lecture, Tumin connected what the experience of his interviewees to his own story as a descendant of a refugee family. His ancestors were Jews who fled from Nazis. Thanks to his great-great uncle, who found a way to escape Germany, some of his family members were able to flee to the United States. However, some were unable to get out of Germany and were sent to concentration camps. Tumin talked about his grandfather who was the first generation in his family to settle in America and who tried his best to incorporate American culture in his life and family. Because of his personal background, Tumin said he felt deeply connected with the refugee students whom he interviewed. He said, “These affected me because I understood the fear and I also understood their [the students’] responds.”
At the end of the lecture, he pointed out that all questions about the refugee crisis cannot be simply answered by yes or no. “Do we want refugees in here, yes or no? I’ve learned that even for someone like me, informed people who support refugees, this question is overly simple,” he said. He emphasized that the refugee problem should be considered as a complex issue with no simple answers.
The refugee crisis has also had an impact on Vassar and Poughkeepsie. A little over a year ago, a branch of Church World Services (CWS), an organization that helps resettle refugees, opened in Poughkeepsie with hopes to resettle 80 refugees in the Mid-Hudson Valley. Working with Vassar Refugee Solidarity and other local groups, CWS was able to welcome a Congolese family of five to the area before President Trump’s initial refugee ban in January 2017 (The Miscellany News, “Refugee ban takes toll on local area,” 02.08.2017).
Since then, it became much more difficult to resettle refugees under the Trump Administration, and the Poughkeepsie office of CWS was forced to close (The Poughkeepsie Journal, Refugee resettlement office closed in Poughkeepsie,” 12.07.2017).