“Over five million people have fled Syria since 2011.” Vassar alum and filmmaker Alexandra Shiva ’95 begins her latest documentary “This is Home: A Refugee Story” with these words flashing across a black screen, reminding us of the almost decade-long Syrian refugee crisis that has shaken the world. The film, screened in the Martel Theater last Thursday, Feb. 21, was presented by the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement, and Education, which was established by Vassar Refugee Solidarity (VRS) and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “This is Home” is a documentary that follows four Syrian refugee families resettling in the Baltimore area with the help of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The film’s 91-minute runtime takes us right into the families’ worlds: into their homes, into their English language and employment classes and deep into the emotional pendulum of restarting their lives in America.
Shiva graduated Vassar in 1995 with a degree in Art History and has since made her name in the documentary film world. Starting in the early 2000s, she has directed and produced four films, notably including “How to Dance in Ohio,” which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. While this film tells the story of teenage girls with autism in Columbus getting ready for their prom—a vastly different subject matter than her latest film—it is similar to “This is Home” in thematics. Shiva is steadfast on spotlighting stories of people finding solace in unlikely communities.
In a conversation led by two VRS members after the screening, Shiva mentioned that her passion for this film arose directly from the subjects themselves. She remarked, “[It was] very important to me and the team to show people with dignity. I wanted them to love the film and feel that they were seen.” Under the jurisdiction of an administration that is pushing every boundary to keep immigrants and refugees from entering, the families in “This is Home” embody an unimaginable degree of resilience. At the end of the discussion, Shiva left everyone in attendance with a reminder that “There’s a survivor quality to the people who got here.”
Despite America’s promises of opportunity, many know the reality of the “American dream” applies only to a small subset of privileged people in the country (CNBC, “Less than 20% of Americans Say They’re Living the American Dream–here’s why,” 09.19.2017). The families Shiva follows quickly learn the difficulty of making a life in a nation with such extreme bias, fear and restriction towards immigrants and refugees. The families depicted, who have only eight months to be self-sufficient from the IRC, must abandon careers, studies and dreams from their lives in Syria, and accept the first jobs offered to them. Many challenges are cultural: adults learning English from their children and husbands coming to terms with their wives needing to work. Simultaneously, the families deal with the realization that they might never be able to go back to the place they have always regarded as home.
Behind the beautiful scenes Shiva captures of children laughing and the people who offered them hope, there is always the pulsing hurt of what they have had to leave behind and the trauma they all carry from the devastating things they’ve seen. “It’s a good question, asking ‘Do you miss Syria?,’” one of the family patriarchs says to the camera. “It’s like asking a child, ‘Do you miss your mother?’”
The stories of Shiva’s subjects are not unlike the stories of many of the refugees with which VRS works. The organization’s resettlement leader Sabrina Surgil ’21 commented: “As a student leader for VRS, watching this documentary was especially moving because parts of the stories reflected the lived experiences of the resettled families we work with upstate. It was familiar and powerful, and Ms. Shiva did a great job with the film.” Under the guidance of Professor of History on the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 Chair Maria Höhn and Adjunct Assistant Professor of International Studies Brittany Murray, VRS works diligently to bring light to stories like those told in “This is Home.” The group takes on a number of different initiatives, such as inviting guest speakers to campus, organizing frequent trips up to the Albany resettlement center and instituting a forced migration correlate at Vassar.
The screening of “This is Home” encapsulated this collaborative spirit. Murray explained in an email interview, “Ms. Shiva’s film demonstrates the resilience of refugees in this country as they overcome incredible difficulty; it was amazing to see students, faculty, and community members come together to witness that journey.” Through the documentary, we are reminded that amidst the daily occurrences of injustice in our world, the refugee crisis is one of persistence, one to which we always need to pay attention and one essential to finding the hope that hides amid crisis.