Spotlight on refugees

Documentary tells struggles of relocated Syrians, their families

The stories of Syrian refugees are now being heard across the world, thanks to two short films produced in conjunction with the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian services in 40 countries.

“Who are these thousands of Syrian migrants?” said Cathe Neukum, the director of both documentaries and the IRC’s executive producer. “I wanted to put a face to the numbers.”

“Escaping Syria,” a short film that examines the lives of four Syrian families living in refugee camps in Iraq and Lebanon, was screened on April 19 at the Granada Theater at an event hosted by GenR: Dallas, the young professionals wing of the IRC’s Dallas chapter.

“I wanted to find families that were iconic and had issues that Americans could relate to,” Neukum said. “You take stories such as separation or dealing with a handicapped child and put them in a refugee camp and they become even more intense.”

The documentary was filmed in 2013 at the Domiz refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan and in a refugee town in the Akkar district of Lebanon. As the film was sponsored by the IRC, Neukum didn’t have difficulty accessing the refugee camps. Once she got there, however, she faced other challenges.

“Initially, it was difficult to get families to agree to do it,” she said. “I also wish I could have spent more time with them. That’s always a problem — you never have enough time.”

After the screening, the IRC organized a panel to discuss the backstory of the documentary. As part of its resettlement program, the IRC finds new homes for refugees in 26 U.S. cities. Among the panelists was Zinah Al Baidhani, a resettled refugee living in Dallas who fled Iraq because of her work with the U.S. Army when it was stationed there in 2003.

“I worked with them as a translator, (so) people saw me as a traitor to my country,” she said during the panel discussion. “It wasn’t a safe situation. My family was relieved when I got a chance to go to the United States because I would be safe and there would be a bright future for me and my son.”

A large part of the resettlement process for children focuses on education. For many youths, schooling was not available or was interrupted by the war. The documentary shared the story of a family that moved to the Domiz refugee camp while leaving their son with his aunt in Syria so he could continue his education. After the situation in Syria deteriorated, the IRC worked to reunite the boy with his family at Domiz. This camp is unique as it is the only refugee camp in Iraq to have a high school. Syrian refugees in Lebanon, however, are not as fortunate.

“Half of Syrian kids living in Lebanon don’t have access to education, whether it’s physically not having access or economically not having access,” Neukum said.

Adjusting to the American concept of daily schooling is a particular challenge for resettled refugees said Razan Ali, a Dallas-based IRC caseworker. To help young refugees resettled in Dallas acclimate to the environment, the IRC partnered with UTD to introduce high school-aged students to college opportunities. A group of students made a field visit to UTD recently and spent an afternoon on campus.

“It was a great way of showing them that they, too, have a future ahead,” said Donna Duvin, executive director of the IRC in Dallas. “It encourages them to stay in school, to work hard and gives them something to look forward to.”

After the panel discussion, a second film, which was also produced and directed by Neukum, was screened for the first time worldwide. The film told the story of the Al Sharaa family, resettled Syrian refugees who escaped to Dallas, and their successful experience with integrating into American society.

The IRC’s pledge to provide humanitarian services and raise awareness about Syrian refugees extends far beyond these two films. Neukum returned to Iraq nine months ago to follow up with the four families and film another documentary, which is currently in the editing stage. GenR: Dallas, which had its soft launch during the screening event, hopes to support IRC’s global operations through fundraising, volunteering and working with resettled refugees in the DFW area.

“What I really want … is for people to see Syrian refugees as ‘normal,’” Neukum said. “We need to see ourselves in them. Their struggles are our struggles.”

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