Compelling documentary offers rare insight into Syrian refugees’ settling in Baltimore

The world is becoming desensitised to the scores of refugees, so this documentary reminds viewers these refugees are not just numbers but people.
Sunday 23/09/2018
A scene from “This Is Home.”(Open City Documentary Festival)
Struggling to find the way. A scene from “This Is Home.”(Open City Documentary Festival)

LONDON - “This Is Home” is a compelling documentary by award-winning director Alexandra Shiva that shows the settling-in process for Syrian refugees in their new home — Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States.

The film follows four families and their difficulties ranging from simple tasks, such as grocery shopping, to harder undertakings, such as learning English and finding a job.

Cultural and religious barriers are explored in the documentary. In one scene, a man refuses to shake a woman’s hand because some Muslims believe physical contact between unmarried men and women is forbidden. Some would argue that it is disrespectful to American culture.

Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee who filmed his journey from Syria to Europe for BBCs “Exodus” series, defended the man, saying: “Of course he should respect the American culture but do you actually expect someone who just arrived three months ago to understand the American culture within three months and speak the language and get on with his life? No. In time he will.”

Manar Marzouk, programme coordinator at Reset Communities and Refugees charity, argued refugees were treated like robots and were expected to adapt to a foreign lifestyle within eight months without taking into consideration the effects of the trauma they faced. They want them to take on major responsibilities right away, forgetting the violence they faced, not providing psychological help and disregarding their mental health.

A cross-sectional, population-based questionnaire was prepared to estimate the mental health of Syrian refugees who resettled in Sweden from 2011-13. The participants were a random sample of 1,215 individuals from Syria aged 18-64 years.

The survey included multiple measures of mental health and factors of relevance for refugees. The results indicated that depression was the most common type of problem, with 40.2% of participants showing signs of it, followed by low subjective well-being at 37.7%, anxiety (31.8%) and post-traumatic stress disorder (29.9%).

The survey concluded that ill mental health is highly elevated and co-morbid among refugees from Syria, which makes addressing mental health issues and promoting recovery essential.

“This is Home” explores gender expectations in American society, where, often, both men and women must work to provide for the family. Some families face difficulties in accepting such roles because of cultural beliefs. For instance, one of the husbands refuses to allow his wife to work because he grew up in an environment in which women were housewives, rather than working outside the home. He eventually accepts this unfamiliar American concept.

The feeling of safety is a common theme in the documentary because homes are meant to be the safest place. A powerful scene showed children shouting “They’re coming! They’re coming!” and running to their house to hide when they hear a helicopter. It reminded them of the aircraft that destroyed their home in Syria.

In another scene, children were asked to place toys to create a scenario of their choice. They often showed the destruction of the mini-world they built and could differentiate the sounds and descriptions of missiles, bombs and aircraft — something children are not meant to witness.

The documentary acknowledges the effect of US President Donald Trump’s statements in 2016 and how it leads to racist and Islamophobic actions. This year, the United States has only taken 11 Syrian refugees, while Europe has taken about 14,000.

The documentary shares different opinions about refugees from Americans. In one scene, Syrians are in an elevator with Americans and a young American girl hides behind her father, apparently frightened by two women wearing a head scarf. Another scene shows the tugging of the headscarf of one of the refugees on a bus.

However, there are some Americans who recognise their responsibility towards refugees. “We want to be the greatest country in the world but we don’t treat people like we’re the greatest country in the world,” an aid worker said, tearing up.

A national survey indicated that 51% of American respondents said the United States has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country, while 43% said it does not.

The most heart-warming scene is a refugee describing his feelings about missing Syria, his home and country. He calls Syria “my heart” and gives an emotional tribute to the country.

The world is becoming desensitised to the scores of refugees, so this documentary reminds viewers these refugees are not just numbers but people.

It highlights the importance of integration within the community for refugees to feel more at home. One of the last scenes shows a church with people coming together to sell tickets for a Syrian cuisine supper cooked by one of the refugees.

One of many ways of showing financial and emotional support is by giving the family a chance to share their story of their journey from Syria to Jordan and then to the United States.

The documentary ends with a rosy picture of the families that sharply contrasts with reality. Reem al-Awadhi, managing director of Yalla Hub, said: “It is hard to escape that narrative.”

“This is Home” is an intense, yet uplifting, documentary that shows refugees in a humane light.

Cultural dissonance. A scene from “This Is Home.”  (Open City Documentary Festival)
Cultural dissonance. A scene from “This Is Home.” (Open City Documentary Festival)