Sundance 2018: This Is Home: A Refugee Story warm, personable account of Syrian families making new attachments in America

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In the harsh cacophony of the debate about immigration and refugees, facts and statistics rarely move the needle in changing opinion. And, there’s plenty of research available, especially longitudinal data collected over many years. It’s easy to summarize. Sources such as the Migration Policy Institute provide data that show education and income level are among the most consistently accurate indicators for a refugee’s potential in the United States. Historically, Syrian immigrants have had higher than average educational levels and literacy rates compared to other immigrant groups. Even if they only can find low-skills jobs, Syrian refugees living in the U.S. likely will be integrated more quickly into society than their counterparts in Europe.

These facts and statistics can be told effectively without ever mentioning, as demonstrated in This Is Home: A Refugee Story, a documentary directed by Alexandra Shiva which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Shiva’s previous documentary How To Dance in Ohio, about a group of autistic teens preparing for their first formal dance, premiered at Sundance in 2015, and was later screened at a Utah Film Center cinema festival for teens. This Is Home also is one of the Utah Film Center’s eight fiscal sponsorship projects which were selected for this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

A film still from This is Home by Alexandra Shiva, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Gidalya Pictures.

Shiva makes the case weaving together the humorous, personable and uplifting stories of four Syrian refugee families in Baltimore who are learning in quite a short time to make meaningful attachments to their new American home. They are given eight months of assistance by the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to become self-sufficient. Shiva provides a comprehensive portrait of the challenges the families face in meeting the fundamental objective of resettling refugees in the U.S. which is economic integration.

The most urgent challenge is learning English, which comes easier to the children than with their parents. And, then there are bureaucratic hassles especially connected to employment. One worked as a mechanic in Syria while another was a skilled ceramic tile installer but they are compelled to take jobs at much lower skill levels. Likewise, their wage rates are tied to them becoming more fluent in English. Khaldoun was tortured in prison and his leg was permanently injured with a drill. Thus, he could not take a job that required him to stand continuously for long hours. However, the men risk losing benefits if they refuse employment opportunities even if they don’t meet their expectations.

There also are political tensions, such as the ongoing battle over the constitutionality of a travel ban that would apply to Syrians. This worries the families who hope to bring their remaining relatives to the U.S. and others including Iman, a licensed healthcare professional, who already had hoped to have her request for asylum fully processed. On a more positive note, viewers see one of the children graduate into high school and others begin their college education. One of the young women is majoring in bioinformatics.

But, there also are concerns about the traumatic effects and memories of a devastating civil war, particularly among the older children. Mohammad is 15 and he tells a doctor that he can have nightmares two or three times a week at least.

A film still from This is Home by Alexandra Shiva, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Gidalya Pictures.

The film opens on dramatic footage that will make some viewers gasp. Forgoing a montage of news broadcast clips covering the Syrian civil war, Shiva chose YouTube footage taken from a Russian drone showing the totality of destruction in the city of Homs. There had been some pushback from sources not to use the footage. But, Shiva indicated that “to our knowledge, the source we contacted about the drone footage of Homs does not own the footage and did not claim it was Russian propaganda, [so] we inferred that from what has been written about the footage.”

The brief clip immediately grounds the wisdom of the film’s title. Some stayed in Syria as long as they conceivably could but then realized that they could remain no longer, if they wanted to keep their children safe. Others spent as much as four years in a Jordanian refugee camp before making it to the United States. Madiha, her husband, Mahmoud, and their four boys were among those who had lived in camps. Mahmoud had worked as a construction supervisor in his homeland but has struggled with English.

While the film documents the pragmatic challenges without minimizing the struggle the refugees face, Shiva manages a hopeful, positive arc that shows how the families are gradually finding their pace and position in an American routine of daily life. They learn to master the public transit routes and schedule. The children appear to enjoy school and they seem comfortable with trying to keep both their old and new cultures in balance. Once Khaldoun lands a job as a truck driver that he seems to enjoy, his wife Yasmen is eager to learn how to drive.

A film still from This is Home by Alexandra Shiva, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Gidalya Pictures.

Madiha’s story is among the most hopeful indicator highlighted in the film. With the encouragement of a friend, Leah Hayes, she prepares a meal of Syrian cuisine for more than 100 people at a local church. The event was successful enough for Madiha to consider starting a catering business. But it is Hayes’ friendship as well as the church community’s support which suggest that perhaps America’s historic willingness to welcome immigrants and refugees without fear or skepticism is still intact. During the church meal, Madiha tells her boys to “interact with the foreigners,” a line that certainly brought plenty of chuckles from the audience.

There are many more Leah Hayes out there. Last spring, a Quinnipiac University poll showed that majority of registered voters (57 percent) supported accepting Syrian refugees, a reversal of the results of a poll taken 18 months earlier that showed a majority opposed allowing any more refugees into the country. The most recent poll was taken after the president had announced a travel ban. Later this spring, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of the ban and a decision is expected by the June 30 end of the court’s term.

Syrian refugees have been placed in many communities around the country but then in 2016, at least 30 governors of U.S. states said they would not accept them. Happily, Utah has accepted refugees in steady numbers annually (average more than 1,150 on average each year). Newcomers receive two years of assistance from the IRC, thanks to state-approved financial support and entrepreneurial initiatives such as the Spice Kitchen Incubator project have helped refugees gain confidence to sharpen their skills and begin realizing the dream of starting their own business.

When the film received its premiere screening at Sundance, Shiva brought members of three of the families featured in the documentary, thanks to grant support from a Park City supporter. In an interview with The Utah Review, Shiva says that project casting for the documentary presented some challenges. “There was a cultural orientation factor to consider,” she explains. “We wanted them to know that it would be a long-term commitment, which meant that if they had a job interview, we would go with them. In Syria, there aren’t a lot of long-form documentaries so people might get a knock on the door and give a short interview and that would be it.”

Likewise, the production crew and team sensitively acknowledged how cultural norms were being changed in their new environments. Men see their dignity tied to their ability to provide adequately for their families’ needs so the idea of the wife working was difficult to accept. Or, even the notion of teaching the woman how to drive. “Humor is very important and it also is the basis of their resilience,” Shiva notes.

What was most surprising for Shiva was acknowledging the irony that the most educated individuals were the most vulnerable in their struggles to achieve a sustainable livelihood. Once the individual becomes fluent in English then the person can seek the required licensing and credentials to do the work he or she is best trained to do. The film conveys realistically the struggles not only the refugees face but also the IRC must contend it in managing the bureaucratic machinery associated with immigrants, refugees and those petitioning for asylum.

Films such as This Is Home offer constructive counterpoint that dilutes the strident nativist voices of those who would demonize refugees as vulnerable candidates to become radicalized or engaged as terrorists. Since 9/11, according to a 2015 report, the U.S. resettled 784,000 refugees and only three were arrested for terrorist activities: two for plans of attacks outside the country and the third was deemed barely credible.

Today, many refugees from Syria are similar to the four families Shiva selected from Baltimore to be a part of the documentary. In watching real life unfold as families, with the help of IRC staff counselors, learn to make their own attachments to American society, we soon realize how preposterously unlikely the fear of The Other becoming the extremist and the existentialist threat is.

Hence, the reasoning for the title. “What is home? What does it mean to not be able to go back? And, how much do they miss home?,” Shiva says, adding the families knew that the ideal home would be whatever represented the best opportunities for their children. It’s a set of questions that immigrants have answered successfully through every great wave of migration in U.S. history.

Produced by Blumhouse and Gidalya Pictures, the film, which includes Princess Firyal of Jordan as executive producer, will make its debut on the premium pay television network EPIX, an MGM company, later this year.

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Les Roka
I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, having received my Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication from Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism in 2002. In addition to teaching at Utah State University and the University of Utah, I have worked extensively in public relations for a variety of organizations including a major metropolitan university, college of osteopathic medicine, and community college. When it comes to intellectual curiosity, I venture into as many areas as possible, whether it’s about music criticism, the history of journalism, the practice of public relations in a Web 2.0 world and the soon-to-arrive Web 3.0 landscape, or how public debates are formed about many issues especially in the political arena. As a Salt Lake City resident, I currently write and edit a blog called The Selective Echo that provides an entertaining, informative, and provocative look at Salt Lake City and its cosmopolitan best. I also have been the U.S. editorial advisor for an online publication Art Design Publicity based in The Netherlands. And, I use social media tools such as Twitter for blogging, networking with journalists and experts, and staying current on the latest trends in culture and news. I also have been a regular monthly contributor to a Utah business magazine, and I have recently conducted a variety of editing projects involving authors and researchers throughout the country and the world, including Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. I’m also a classically trained musician who spent more than 15 years in a string quartet, being involved in more than 400 performances.

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