Hard Truth, Levity, and Hope – Refugees in Lowell, MA

I grew up in an inner-city north of Boston. Though it had been a booming mill town during the Industrial Revolution, my hometown went through hard times when jobs went south, and then overseas. Over the years, it has been reborn several times, first as a hotbed of technology with Wang Laboratories at the heart of the revitalization; then Paul Tsongas helped Lowell become a part of the U.S. National Parks System with the establishment of the Lowell National Historical Park. Most recently, artists and filmmakers have brought new life to the city (The Fighter). Though the industries fueling the city’s economy have changed throughout the years, the heart of Lowell has not.

Irishmen digging the canals of Lowell.Since its inception, Lowell has become home to wave after wave of immigrant and refugee communities from around the world. My own Irish ancestors came to Lowell in the late 1800’s, determined to escape the horrors of the Potato Famine in Ireland. They settled in what was, and is still called, “The Acre,” a one-acre tract of land Lowell’s Irish laborers were allotted for their living space. As the population grew, what began as an acre of rickety huts eventually developed into a neighborhood of low-income housing. When the Irish moved out, they were followed by Eastern Europeans, Southeast Asians, Africans, and most recently, Middle-Eastern and Burmese refugees. These immigrants and refugees came to Lowell for the same reasons as my own ancestors – to escape the miserable living conditions of their homeland in hopes of finding a better life in America. My great-great-great grandfathers helped dig the canals that powered the mills of Lowell. My great-grandmother worked in the silk mills. From immigrant, blue-collar beginnings, my family found opportunity, and most importantly, a community, in Lowell.

Lowell is still very much a blue-collar city, with an incredibly diverse population. Our differences have become a source of pride for the city – we are an example of how people from all over the world, with myriad religions and belief systems, can form a community. As my Auntie Debbie says, Lowell is not a melting pot, it is a stew. It is a place where people come and are able to retain their individuality and culture while finding a place for themselves within the larger community.

With this pride intact, you cannot imagine the feeling I had when I found out that someone recently threw a 20lb. stone through the window of Babylon, a local restaurant owned by Iraqi refugees. I was especially upset because I know, and have worked with, Rafal, the daughter of the owner. Last year, one of my students, Connor, created a film about the refugees attending the high school. Rafal was featured in the film, and we actually shot her interview in Babylon.

Rafal's interview at Babylon in Lowell, MA

Rafal's interview at Babylon in Lowell, MA - the window to her left was the one through which the boulder was thrown.

Luckily, there was a witness who was able to get the license plate of the car, and police tracked down the culprit. He will soon have his day in court. However, this act was a stark reminder of the prejudice and racism that still exists in America – even in Lowell. (The perpetrator WAS NOT from Lowell.) Yet, in the face of such a cruel act, the response of the community was incredible. U.S. Veterans from Lowell and surrounding towns staged an “Eat In” earlier this week to show their support of the family. The event was picked up by Rachel Maddow, and featured on her TV show. It was an incredible show of support for a deserving, hardworking family who are chasing their own American Dreams, just like the many immigrants of Lowell before them.

This event underscored for me the importance of the film that Connor made, Hard Truth, Levity & Hope. Though it has been screened in Lowell, and at the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival in Ohio, and the UNSPOKEN Human Rights Film Festival in New York, it needs to reach a wider audience. So here it is – please watch and share. It is a powerful film that eloquently tells the stories of the refugees we work with at school. Hopefully, as we reach more people, tolerance, understanding, compassion, and love will continue to grow among the American people.

About Jen

Outdoor adventurer and traveler. Writer, Photographer & Communications Professor. Wife. Mom of twins plus one. Tubbs Snowshoes Ambassador. Blogger at gayfamilytrips.com.

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2 Responses to Hard Truth, Levity, and Hope – Refugees in Lowell, MA

  1. David January 16, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    I’m a big fan of the Babylon Restaurant. I have eaten there a number of times and the food and the people there are superb. My church is also closely involved with the LIFT, Lowell Iraqi Families Team, and have supported these refugees from providing clothing, food, financial support, moral support, and friendship since they first started arriving in Lowell.

    I was horrified to find out about the vandalism that occurred at the Babylon. My first reaction was this must be a hate crime. However the perpetrator of this crime has been caught and THIS WAS NOT A HATE CRIME, but just an ignorant and stupid act of vandalism, nothing more. According to the Lowell Police chief, having rocks thrown through plate glass windows in Lowell is not entirely uncommon. This has happened to other businesses in Lowell that were not owned by an ethnic group.

    This in no way excuses this act, nor does in diminish the impact it has had on a new business in Lowell. I am thrilled for the show of support that the public has shown to Babylon in the wake of this tragedy, but I think it is important to point out that this was not a hate crime directed at an ethnic group in Lowell. People are too quick to judge situations before they have all the facts. While it is easy to jump to conclusions given the players involved in this situation, we should not be fanning the fires of racial indignation.

    • Jen January 16, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

      Hi David!

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that we need to be careful about stoking the fires of hate crimes. However, having grown up in Lowell, I know the law enforcement there is very hesitant to ever label anything a hate crime. A few years ago a gay man was attacked and called various epithets, and yet the crime was not labeled a hate crime.

      My concern with this particular incident is that the perpetrator was not from Lowell. He had to purposefully drive to Lowell, bring a huge boulder with him, and toss it through the window. Why that particular restaurant? Despite what the Lowell police have stated, I’m not so quick to dismiss this man’s motives as just ignorance. In fact, this is what they stated:

      “Unless this gentleman is lying to us — and I don’t believe that he is — he didn’t even know this restaurant was affiliated with people from Iraq,” said Lowell police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee.

      Really? He had no idea? Even with the Arabic writing and the word “Iraqi” plastered on the windows?

      I guess I want to know more – perhaps that info will come out during the court hearing. I do hope the police are right, but I remain very, very skeptical.

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