Nickel City Smiler – film review

Thousands of Karen refugees on the Thai Burma border have been resettled in the United States. Nickel City Smiler follows the ups and downs of Smiler Greely, a refugee, as he battles to carve out a new life for his family in Buffalo, New York State. Victoria Jack and Saw Blacktown review the documentary for Karen News.

After escaping horrific violence at the hands of the Burmese junta and spending 20 years in Mae La refugee camp, Karen refugee Smiler Greely and his family have been resettled to one of America’s poorest cities.

The streets on the west side of Buffalo are lined with houses that have been boarded up and abandoned, while gangs, drugs and crime are rife.

Against this backdrop, the filmmakers of Nickel City Smiler pose a question that drives the documentary: how are Smiler, his wife Ma Dee and their three children – one of many Burmese families sent to live on the dark side of Buffalo – supposed to make a new life for themselves in such a hopeless place?

The film is a little slow to get going and audience members unfamiliar with the relevant historical background would benefit from a more lucid introduction to the persecution that lead many Karen to flee their homeland bound for refugee camps in Thailand.

However, the story gains momentum as it delves into the struggles faced by Greely and others in his community.

In the process, the film raises concerns that resettlement agencies tasked with assisting Burmese refugees in Buffalo are failing to provide adequate support.

For example, Greely introduces us to a woman whose husband died because she was not aware how to call for medical help, and also visits a man whose family was placed in a house with another refugee family who can’t speak their language.

These stories are powerful and persuasive, but the failure of the filmmakers to seek a response from the resettlement agencies in question was an unfortunate omission that cast a little doubt over the credibility and fairness of the film’s narrative.

Despite a few weaknesses, Nickel City Smiler successfully provides an emotional snapshot of the vast chasm between the hopeful dreams of refugees planning for resettlement and the gloomy reality that sometimes eventuates.

Naw Pai, a refugee from Mae La Camp told Karen News what they thought about the issues covered in Nickel City.

“Different individual family of refugee will experience problems in the new country differently. It will depend on the area you resettle to because services provided in each of the refugee community is also different. The language skills are also a factor in adapting with the completely new environment and neighbors. For those who speak the language they will be a little bit better off than those who don’t speak the language at all. Another thing is that if people have families or relatives who had already settled there, the situation will be better as they will have someone to look up to when they are in trouble.”

Saw Poe Bleh, a refugee from Umphiem camp spoke to Karen News.

“It is not easy, as a refugee, to start a new life in a new country with completely different lifestyle and culture. The situation will be worse for those who don’t speak the language and those who are not familiar with the daily lifestyle. I know some refugees who resettled to places where they have good service providers or refugee agencies and they get enough support through the beginning of starting their new life. Refugees don’t have much knowledge about processes and the paper work of agencies or institutions. They may not know where to go if there is something wrong. For those who resettle to places where there is big Karen community, they will have someone to look up to or they will get help from someone in the community. While many refugees who don’t really expect to see any problems, there are also many who are aware of the challenges they are going to face, but they hope it will be a better life and a better future for them in the new country. At least, this is our way out, we don’t want to live as refugees forever.”

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