FIRST NIGHT IN AMERICA (11 minutes, 2017)
The United States has a long, complicated history of accepting refugees from around the world. However, few of us are familiar with the intricacies of how relocation and resettlement works. Back in 2006, after reading an article about an airport hotel that shelters refugees awaiting their connections to far-flung corners of this country, we found ourselves wondering about their very first night here. How did these newcomers navigate that foreign, if quintessentially American environment?
By the end of 2011, the wars in the Middle East had precipitated a global refugee crisis, and we decided to make a film about that first night in America for those families who made it here. As we filmed family after family passing through a hotel near New York, we were struck by the universality of the experience of landing in a new place after a long flight: jet lag, hunger, disorientation, anxiety, hope.
While the adults clearly struggled under the weight of losing one way of life and previewing the one to come, their children lived the day like any other (or maybe a more exciting one). We were captivated by the kids’ joy at the small discoveries in the motel: giant mirrors, unfamiliar faucets. A teenage girl’s frustrating attempt to locate her makeup seemed like an appropriate, and familiar, way for her to begin to organize her new life.
Now that some years have passed since we filmed, the refugees pictured have had a chance to settle into their new lives. One of the teenagers in the film is a pre-med student in North Dakota, as well as a refugee advocate. His parents, who wonder in the film about the jobs they will be able to find, work at a fast-food restaurant and recently bought their own house. Another young man, who arrived alone, is now married and employed at a cabinetry company in South Dakota. They have left behind the anonymity of the airport motel and built new lives woven into their American communities.
We made this film over six days with the help of the International Organization for Migration, a group that has been supporting refugee resettlement since the aftermath of World War II. The men and women of IOM, identified by their blue vests, guide refugees from their initial travel point, where they also conduct health assessments and cultural competency classes, all the way to their domestic flight in the states. The majority of IOM agents we met had come here as refugees themselves and could vividly recall their own first moments in the United States.
IOM agents continue to greet refugees landing at our multiple ports of entry, but the number of refugees accepted to the United States is adjusted each year by the executive branch. As our nation determines its future role in this process, we hope that this film will move us to contemplate more deeply the meaning of sanctuary and the extent to which we stand for it.
Andrea Meller and Marisa Pearl are California-based documentary filmmakers. “Hotel USA” is their first collaboration and the initial piece in a series of films about refugees. (Source: The New York Times Op-Docs)