Special event at Berkshire Museum aims at building unity in diversity

PITTSFIELD — In the 2-minute 23-second trailer of the documentary film, "Salam Neighbor," there's a brief clip of one of the filmmakers covering his face with the collar of his T-shirt, seemingly to absorb tears building up in his eyes. His voice is obviously choked and wavering with emotion, as he says, "I don't really want to be filmed right now."

The young Los Angeles resident had been in a Syrian refugee camp for only a few days of a one-month stay and already he was breaking down, perhaps overwhelmed by the surrounding dirt, dust and sirens contrasted by warm welcomes from neighboring tent dwellers.

So, imagine what it could do for a person actually living in such a place, subjected to months — or, as commonly the case, years — of shelling, scarcity of food and water, and not knowing exactly where to call home during a violent civil war.

It was this glimpse, a total 75-minute span, into the effect the crisis in Syria had on the people who have become refugees, that tugged at Sandra Newman's heartstrings, spurred her to action to share this story and also actively seek out the stories of people who have emigrated to the Berkshires. "Salam," by the way, means "hello" in Arabic.

On Saturday, starting at 5 p.m., her vision will come together in one event, "Unity in Diversity," at the Berkshire Museum. With support from the Berkshire Immigrant Center and Kelley Vickery, director of the Berkshire International Film Festival, it will feature a screening of "Salam Neighbor," directed by Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, followed by a panel discussion moderated by Sherwood Guernsey of the Four Freedoms Coalition, and a reception with hors d'oeuvres, wine, and desserts prepared by a number of local restaurant owners and chefs, many of whom are immigrants from countries all over the world.

"I feel this film is very important to share with our community in the spirit of bringing together all races, religions, and cultures and to honor the values of inclusivity, respect, and equality that are at the heart of our local and national identity," says Newman, founder of the Great Barrington-based Community Access to the Arts.

She first saw the film back in the fall at Images Cinema, as part of a Nov. 13 screening presented the First Congregational Church of Williamstown.

It left such an impression that she decided to forge ahead with plans for Unity in Diversity, inviting everyone she knows — state legislators, artists, English as a second language teachers, business executives and faith leaders, in addition to neighbors and friends.

"This felt like a wonderful time to do something," Newman said, noting how some post-election sentiments included a sense of division, isolation and exclusion among the nation's diverse families.

"It seemed so valuable to me to see two men from L.A. trying to gain a sense of humanity by going out into the world to help, to meet refugees and get to know each other as friends and as human beings by getting together and learning to be comfortable with each other," she said.

In the film's trailer, a woman holds a map showing a basic outline of the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, overseen by The United Nations Refugee Agency. She tells the directors, "District 5 is going to be your temporary home." While the directors' statement indicates that there were some 85,000 refugees in Za'atari when they filmed there in 2014, current data says it contains 79,736 displaced children, women and men. With this swelling population, the camp is unofficially referred to as Jordan's fourth largest "city."

Much of the documentary shows the filmmakers traveling between the camp and nearby city of Mafraq to listen to people's stories, like that of Raouf, who was 10 years old when they met him and entering his third year growing up inside the camp; or of Um Ali, a grandmother in her mid-50s, whose arrived to the camp with nothing but a jacket after her eldest son was dragged through the streets and eventually shot, yet who managed to become an entrepreneur in the camp by weaving crafts from strips and shreds of the discarded plastic bags she finds there.

Newman said she knows that in the Berkshires, there are people who live here who have similar stories, whether from their own personal experiences or the experiences of family members. Her collaborative effort is the latest among several initiatives currently happening within the region to give immigrants and refugees their voices, especially as Pittsfield has been in talks with the Jewish Family Service of Western Massachusetts regarding federal plans to resettle 50 Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the city.

Berkshire Immigrant Center director Hilary Greene said the Unity in Diversity film screening and forum is "so timely in terms of raising awareness and raising consciousness," noting especially how Pittsfield's resettlement plans have made some city natives restless and apprehensive about being so welcoming.

Greene said that while Saturday's event will likely attract people in support of policies that pave ways to safety and peace for refugees and immigrants, she said she also hopes people who may be skeptical will also come to the event to learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis so they can better decide whether they want to support such initiatives.

Events like this are beneficial, Greene said, "if you get one, two, three or more people who have had their minds changed because of this, or are spurred to action to say, hey, I'm going to meet my neighbor who just moved here from somewhere else."

To further drive this theme home, Newman said Saturday night's audiences will also have the chance to watch a short film made in the Berkshires to hear the stories of local refugees who have previously emigrated to the county from places like Cambodia, Colombia and countries of the former Soviet Union. The film has been a project of Williams College students working under adviser Colin Ovitsky through the Center for Learning in Action.

Said Newman, "You never know what people's thoughts and ideas are and what they could come to be. Just joining together and getting to know someone and sharing thoughts and ideas give us more opportunities for talking about change."


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