Refugee's move to Philadelphia is topic of documentary

Meh Sha Lin at home in South Philadelphia. I feel like Im a movie star, he said of his central role in Meh Sha, a documentary produced by Villanova University students that explores his harrowing journey from Asia. He wants to burden you with his happiness, not his problems, filmmaker Hezekiah Lewis III said of the upbeat Lin.
Meh Sha Lin at home in South Philadelphia. I feel like Im a movie star, he said of his central role in Meh Sha, a documentary produced by Villanova University students that explores his harrowing journey from Asia. He wants to burden you with his happiness, not his problems, filmmaker Hezekiah Lewis III said of the upbeat Lin. (Tony Fitts)
Posted: June 17, 2010

Juliane Ramic, who knows, says refugees arrive in the United States carrying two suitcases:

In one, they bring their possessions.

In the other, they keep their traumas.

Meh Sha Lin, a teenager from Myanmar, is unpacking - and doing so publicly, on screen.

Lin, 18, is the unlikely hero of a new documentary, simply titled Meh Sha, that explores his harrowing journey from Asia to South Philadelphia. The movie was produced by Villanova University students under the guidance of filmmaker Hezekiah Lewis III and includes expert commentary from Ramic, of the Nationalities Service Center in Center City.

The documentary recently premiered at the Ritz at the Bourse, and it soon will be entered in film festivals across the country.

"I feel like I'm a movie star," Lin said in an interview.

And that's a feeling he never expected.

In the early 1980s, his family fled the cruelty of Myanmar's military dictatorship, landing in a refugee camp in neighboring Thailand. Lin was born there a decade later.

He spent 14 years in the camp. During that time, his father was murdered - the circumstances unclear.

When the family came to the United States in 2007, Lin's older brother, Har Lin, had to be left behind, blocked by immigration regulations that could keep him in the camp for six or seven more years.

One of the film's poignant scenes comes when Meh Sha Lin speaks to his brother via a Skype video connection. Their sister's daughter, Cherry, 3, cries out to her to uncle on screen, "I am in America! When are you coming?"

Yet, in the movie and in life, Meh Sha Lin remains relentlessly upbeat. In one scene, he comically riffs on how in America, it seems as if anything that's left unlocked or outside gets stolen. "I said, 'Mom, don't stand outside, somebody will steal you.' "

He lives in a brick rowhouse with his sister and mother. Two older sisters live nearby. He's a junior at South Philadelphia High, a troubled school where Asian students have been beaten and harassed.

Little of that seeps into the film.

Indeed, Lin said in an interview, he loves the school, loves his teachers. He serves as a peer mediator, trying to resolve classmates' disputes.

"I like to help people," he said. "If somebody is fighting, they come to me."

Cheerful determination

The students in Villanova's social-justice documentary course wanted to make a film about immigration. They did so by telling the story of one immigrant.

That focus developed almost accidentally, when Lin was interviewed early in the process. The students were struck by his cheerful determination.

Lin had come to the United States unable to speak English and years behind in schooling.

"He was really eager to learn the language, because he wanted to communicate," said William Mirsky, who teaches English to speakers of other languages at South Philadelphia High.

Lin carries his grief for his father - and shoulders enormous other responsibilities, tending to his sick mother and working weekends to help pay the bills. He had counted on his brother's arrival for help.

"All the stuff he's gone through, and he's so optimistic about life," said Harry Chan, a student producer.

Producer Kristina Grappo said, "All of us feel like Meh Sha is part of our family."

The 30-minute film is narrated by actress Phylicia Rashad, best-known for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show.

Lewis, a Villanova assistant professor, said he encouraged his students to tell a story that could create change - and they found that in Lin.

"I knew there was a lot of pain under that smile," Lewis said. "He's never complained. He wants to burden you with his happiness, not his problems."

'No future there'

South Philadelphia is home to about 220 people from Myanmar, a fraction of those who have fled a country run by one of the world's most oppressive regimes.

Nine refugee camps in northwest Thailand house about 147,000. News reports describe the camps as squalid, the underfed residents having little work, schooling, or hope. Some people have lived in the camps, originally intended as temporary homes, for years or decades.

"There's really no future there. People have been warehoused," said Lee Williams, a vice president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

The odds are against many of those from Myanmar making their way here. The United States admits only about 80,000 refugees a year from around the world.

In South Philadelphia, Lin traded a job at convenience store for one helping new immigrants adjust. He wants to be a social worker and dreams of attending college, Villanova most of all.

The Villanova students said they want Meh Sha to be seen everywhere - to spread word of Lin's experience, to publicize the fate of refugees, to move people to action.

At the start of the Ritz screening, only a few in the audience raised their hands when asked whether they could find Myanmar on a map.

At the end, most still weren't sure where Myanmar was located. But everyone wanted to do something to help.


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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