“Zander,” who fled from draconian anti-gay laws in his home country of Uganda, now resides in Berkeley. (Photo/Sophie Constantinou)
“Zander,” who fled from draconian anti-gay laws in his home country of Uganda, now resides in Berkeley. (Photo/Sophie Constantinou)

These refugees are using objects to tell their tales of flight to the Bay Area

The key to a house in Syria. A ceremonial outfit from Afghanistan. A photo of a loved one in Uganda. These are among the cherished objects three refugees carried with them to a new life in the Bay Area.

A new multimedia documentary project will be presented Thursday, June 22 at JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley exploring the significance of such objects in the refugees’ process of telling their often harrowing stories of flight, loss and adaptation to a new culture.

The project, entitled “What We Carry With Us: A Refugee Storytelling Lab,” is an ongoing collaboration of documentary company Citizen Film and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley. It uses film, photos and first-person accounts to tell the story of young refugees similar in age to the college students who interviewed them.

headshot of sam ball
Citizen Film co-founder Sam Ball (Photo/Peter Samuels)

Sam Ball, a co-founder of San Francisco-based Citizen Film and the JCC East Bay’s documentarian in residence, said objects taken from home can help refugees tell their story — and make it easier for audiences to hear those tales.

“What we found through this project is that talking about objects takes the heat out of the storytelling in a way, and makes it easier to tell the story and sometimes makes the story easier to hear,” Ball said. “We thought using objects could be a way of getting at some difficult topics.”

Three refugees will be at the JCC on June 22 to tell their stories, including a Uganda native who asked to be referred to by his pseudonym Zander. Joining the discussion will be Magnes curator Francesco Spagnolo and Amy Weiss, director of refugee and immigrant services at Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay — which helped Zander resettle in Berkeley last September.

The presentation will include short films produced by Citizen Film and digital images, as well as the objects the refugees brought with them to the U.S.

Zander, 25, is gay, a crime in Uganda punishable by life in prison. He was a teenager when his longtime partner, Ssamujju, was stoned to death by neighbors in the capital city of Zampala as Zander watched.

“The people around us didn’t like LGBTI, that he was having sex with a guy,” he said in an interview. “They beat him, they beat Ssamujju, they brought huge stones. They said before we call the police, we have to first kill him. The guy was stoned until he died, I was crying.”

Zander’s mother, who was his chief protector, told him to leave Kampala, warning that he could be next. But Zander stayed, suffering taunts and beatings from a nephew, until his parents died in 2013 in a car crash. He left by bus for Kenya the same day, quickly throwing some cash, his headphones, a cell phone and a picture of himself with Ssamujju into a backpack.

“You don’t really have time to think about what to take. He didn‘t have time to find his parents’ photo,” Ball said. “The one object that you take has incredible significance because it’s one of the very few things that come from home that is beyond utilitarian.”

During six months in Nairobi, Zander sold himself as a prostitute, slept on the street, attempted suicide and swiped food from garbage cans. Then he went to a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya where he met LGBT people but still suffered abuse from other refugees — some of whom spit on him.

“They beat me,” he said. “That was going to be my destiny, I thought I was going to die in that camp.”

When Zander finally left Kenya, bound for California, he brought with him three bracelets he had made in the camp — one in the black, yellow and red of the Ugandan flag; one in the red, white and blue of the U.S. flag, and one in the rainbow colors that gays use as their symbol.

Zander, who works as a hospital security guard and eventually would like to work with autistic kids, said living in Berkeley has been liberating.

“How can I be scared here? You can do whatever you feel you want to do here,” he said. “As long as you pay taxes, that’s the good thing about this country — they don’t care who you are.”

Ball stressed that the project began before the Trump administration sought to restrict the entry of refugees to the U.S. and “is not in response to the election.” As the son of a Holocaust survivor, he said the refugees’ stories are familiar to most Jews.

“Part of the conversation [at the JCC] will be about our historical memory as Jewish people and some historical connections we make with the sort of courageous young people who will be on stage,” he said.

“When I hear Zander’s story, it’s not something I experienced personally, but the idea is not foreign to me. As Jews, we don’t have to look far into our history to know people who experienced things that are equally unspeakable.”

“What We Carry With Us: A Refugee Storytelling Lab,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 22. JCC East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. Tickets $8 in advance, $12 at the door. jcceastbay.org

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.