'This Is Home': Film Review | Sundance 2018
Syrian refugees attempt to adjust to life in the U.S. in Alexandra Shiva’s World Cinema Documentary premiere.
When Syrian residents were forced to flee the civil war that began in 2011, the U.S. began accommodating refugee immigrants, along with some 50 other nations, accepting almost 21,000 by 2016. Nearly 400 moved to Baltimore, where the local branch of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonprofit humanitarian organization based in New York City, provides resettlement assistance.
Following four refugee families who arrived in 2016, Alexandra Shiva’s This Is Home charts their initial integration into American society over eight months and the various challenges and opportunities they encounter. Overwhelmingly conventional in style and intentionally limited in scope, this is a TV-ready doc slated for broadcast on Epix that’s unlikely to sustain much of a theatrical run if the opportunity arises.
Many families arrive in Baltimore after transiting refugee camps in Jordan, which hosts over a million displaced Syrians. In the U.S., the IRC provides eight months of support and assistance, so new arrivals need to rapidly progress to self-sufficiency. The IRC’s Baltimore center offers practical English classes, employment training and guidance with applying for public assistance at no cost to clients.
Recent arrivals Khaldoun, his wife Yasmen and their four kids must quickly adjust to getting the children registered in elementary school and working out public transportation options. A former auto mechanic, Khaldoun wants to remain in his former profession, but the IRC requires that beneficiaries accept the first job offered to them and staff members discourage him from pursuing an automotive career. At the same time, they suggest that Yasmen should also consider working to help the family make ends meet, but Khaldoun initially refuses to consider that option (“Over my dead body,” he grouses).
The mother of three college-age daughters, former physician Iman came to the U.S. prior to their arrival and waited two years for them to receive immigration approval. After living independently on their own in Jordan, however, the girls chafe under Iman’s watchful maternal eye, eager to assimilate as they prepare to continue their studies in the Baltimore area.
Once she makes some new American friends, Madiha is also ready to integrate, despite her husband Mahmoud’s reservations, although she acknowledges that she’s learning more about American language and culture from her four kids than she can on her own with classes at the IRC. Meanwhile, Mohammad, whose wife doesn’t appear in the film due to concerns for her family’s safety in Syria, has to make major adjustments as he tries to manage much of the housekeeping on his own while helping to look after their four kids and searching for a job.
Since most IRC staff members don’t speak Arabic, they have to contact on-call interpreters to assist clients with more complex situations. The Syrians just use their phones to access Google Translate when they need to know specific words and phrases. Much of the film is devoted to IRC's logistical consultations with clients regarding medical appointments, job hunting and financial assistance programs. Since every family receives the same set of services, scenes involving these classes, meetings and trainings lead to frequent repetition.
Their routine is dramatically disrupted, however, when the Trump administration announces the January 2017 travel ban, suspending the resettlement of most Syrian refugees. U.S. authorities inform Mohammad’s brother living in Jordan that his immigration application has been put on hold, making a reunion with his family in Baltimore less likely.
Another problematic issue involves several of the children who exhibit PTSD symptoms, suffering from nightmares and irrational fears after surviving life in a war zone, which medical professionals treat with group therapy sessions and medication, if appropriate.
Considering prevailing cultural norms, these types of intimate details were probably easier for the families to share with Shiva (How to Dance in Ohio, Stagedoor) as a woman director working with a female cinematographer, since the filmmakers could be trusted while visiting the families in their homes. Even with this remarkable degree of access, though, the film still lacks a distinct sense of drama.
Since most of the Syrians have been granted permanent residency status, they will most likely be able to remain in the U.S. While some still miss Syria and their families, there’s a clear sense that they’ll somehow manage to adjust, even if they never give up their attachment to their homeland.
In a rather unusual pairing, the film’s executive producers include Princess Firyal, a government minister and member of the Jordanian royal family, and Blumhouse Productions CEO Jason Blum.
Production company: Gidalya Pictures
Director: Alexandra Shiva
Producers: Alexandra Shiva, Lindsey Megrue, Valerie Bishop Pearson
Executive producers: Princess Firyal of Jordan, Jason Blum, Patty Quillin, Jocelyn Diaz, Jill Burkhart
Director of photography: Laela Kilbourn
Editor: Toby Shimin
Music: T. Griffin
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Sales: Film Sales Corp.