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This is Home: A Refugee Story

Park City, Utah — The Sundance program log line for This is Home: A Refugee Story, in the World Documentary Competition at this year’s festival, reads as follows: “This is an intimate portrait of four Syrian families arriving in Baltimore, Maryland, and struggling to find their footing.”

Hmmm. Interesting, indubitably. But why would someone concentrating on films dealing with the environment and climate change select this particular film from the dozens and dozens on offer here in Park City this week? I was, in fact, asked this question this week. Here is how I answered it.

Climate change is intricately linked with the refugee crisis. Here is what the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said about the phenomenon in November 2016 at the start of COP 22 in Marrakech:

“Displacement linked to climate change is not a future hypothetical — it’s a current reality. An annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden onset hazards — such as floods, storms, wildfires, extreme temperature — each year since 2008. Thousands of others flee their homes in the context of slow-onset hazards, such as droughts or coastal erosion linked to sea level rise. There is high agreement among scientists that climate change, in combination with other drivers, is projected to increase displacement of people in the future.”

And here is what the same agency said specifically about the Syrian refugee crisis:

“Climate change is also a “threat multiplier” in many of today’s conflicts, from Darfur to Somalia to Iraq and Syria. The Arab Spring is commonly seen as leading to Syria’s conflict, but people tend to forget the five-year drought in Syria’s northeast that preceded the war and the displacement of some 1.5 million people. Climate change sows seeds for conflict, but it also makes displacement much worse when it happens. “

With this knowledge in mind, I took in today’s screening of This is Home with avidity. How do people who have been plucked from the rubble of interminable war — and who have no familiar place to escape to — manage when they are transplanted virtually overnight to a mid-Atlantic seaport? Who are told (through interpreters) upon their arrival, that they have exactly eight short months to get their act together and become financially independent of the aid they receive from the International Rescue Centre in Baltimore until then?

This is Home’s director Alexandra Shiva, following up her crowd-pleasing 2015 work (and Sundance doc) How to Dance in Ohio, has crafted a sensitive and moving film of four Syrian refugee families that find hurdles big and small in their transition to life in the United States.

The enforced timeline of eight months provides the film’s structure and highlights the urgency the newcomers feel in adapting. “At the end of those eight months, they need to be learning the language, have a job, be able to take care of themselves,” Shiva says. “They need to figure out how to learn America.”

In poignant scenes, we are exposed to just a few of the quotidian difficulties they face: What is a walk signal at an intersection? How do you find a bus to get to a job interview? How does a man who believes his wife shouldn’t work come to terms with the financial necessity of her doing so? How do the young kids fit in at school? What about the relatives left behind?

Khaldoun, who came with his wife and four children, was tortured with a drill while in prison and was left physically disabled before he arrived. Will he be able to find a job he can do? Will Madiha, an excellent cook, be able to turn her skill into an income? Will the grown daughters of Iman, a doctor, be able to stay? And what of Mohammad, 15, who is plagued with nightmares?

Shiva doesn’t use a lot of background information to set her story, preferring to let her subjects’ actions (and few words) speak for themselves. And by no means is it a sad tale. With the help of a truly caring community, these refugees seem to smile through most of their troubles. In fact, Shiva said she was surprised by her subjects’ spirit, resilience and how they were able “to make jokes about how ridiculous the situations they found themselves in were.”

While This is Home doesn’t break new ground, it succeeds in what surely is its most basic mission: It tells the story of these newcomers — people some see as frightening “others” — in such a compassionate way that it breaks down the barriers of “other-ness.” It helps us to understand in a deep, visceral way that there really is no “them” and “us.” As wars rage, the climate continues to change at an accelerated rate, and millions of people are forced to be on the move, we will have to increasingly get along with group after group of new arrivals. This is Home helps us to understand a little of what that might be like for those people. And for those of us already comfortably settled here to find within ourselves more expansive hearts.

Alexandra Shiva/Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Syrian refugee Madiha, a talented cook, is shown in a still from Alexandra Shiva's new doc This is Home, in competition at the Sundance 2018 fest.

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