Refugee Dreams will be an intimate verité documentary about Somali Bantu refugees who are leaving behind a two-hundred-year legacy of slavery to face new challenges in a strange new land. Until 1991, they were living as subsistence farmers, much like post-civil war sharecroppers in America, denied the right to vote or to go to school. Because of their long history of persecution, the State Department granted all Somali Bantu refugees priority status for resettlement in America. This year, twelve thousand will arrive in fifty cities across America, becoming the largest African group from a single minority to settle in the United States at one time.
Refugee Dreams will tell a complex and compelling story: a lost tribe escaping persecution in Africa by coming to America; practicing Muslims arriving here at a time of rampant anti-Muslim prejudice; large extended families of pre-literate black farmers adjusting to urban America life. The film is a story about time travel, culture shock, a leap from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. By closely following two families through their first year in America, the documentary will tell an entertaining and moving human story that will make a tremendous contribution to the public’s understanding of racism, human rights, civil liberties, and tolerance in America.
Production on the film began last January at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. We were fortunate to find two wonderful families to follow. Arbai Barre Abdi, a single mother of four scheduled for resettlement in Atlanta, is quick, strong, affectionate, with a great sense of humor and an easy contagious laugh despite her devastating past. The other family, bound for Springfield, Massachusetts, is headed by a charismatic, volatile father, Adan, who is determined to provide for his huge family but uncertain and a bit naive about the life that lies ahead. His wife Madina is fierce, vulnerable, hopeful. She and Adan have seven appealing children ranging in age from one to seventeen. Their witty teenage sons will figure prominently in the documentary, as will Arbai’s teenage daughters. In Kenya, we filmed their lives in the camp, focusing on their two-week “Cultural Orientation” class, where they saw television for the first time and tried to imagine America, which will be as strange to them as the moon.
In March, we returned to Kenya to film the families’ journey to America and their arrivals in their respective cities. The scenes we shot during their first weeks here are moving, often funny, and full of surprises. At Newark airport, they asked how people outside could be smoking without cigarettes. When they saw their own breath, they literally jumped. We filmed them experiencing many things for the first time: snow, a vacuum cleaner, a mystifying Burger King drive-in, and an elevator ride to the 28th floor, the first time they had been above two stories. Looking out over the frozen Connecticut River, Adan asked, “Are there crocodiles in there?”
We chose families slated for Atlanta and Springfield because of the contrasting demographics and the very different experiences the refugees will have in their new home towns. Atlanta, a predominantly black southern city, is the destination of nearly a thousand Somali Bantu refugees this year. Like African Americans, Somali Bantus are descendants of people who were ripped from their homes and sold into slavery. A dramatic part of this story will be the relationships that develop between local African Americans and the newly arrived refugees, for whom slavery is a recent memory. World Relief, a Christian organization, is in charge of resettling Arbai in Atlanta, with an Evangelical Presbyterian church sponsoring the family, adding another fascinating dimension to the story. In Springfield, Jewish Family Services is sponsoring Adan’s family, along with a hundred other recently arrived Somali Bantu. The story of Jewish social workers helping devout Muslims through their first year in America will be an important part of the film. Springfield has just declared bankruptcy and is cutting social services, potentially causing tensions like those that erupted in Lewiston, Maine, a city that tried to eject Somali refugees.
Despite their many years of suffering, these refugees are full of hope. If they can succeed in their new lives, they will become models for the resettlement of high-risk refugees in America. Our adviser Omar Eno believes this is possible and even likely. “The Bantu will be happy if their children can go to school, if they can find any job at all. They have proven time and again that they can adapt to very difficult situations. This will be the first time that they will find any liberty at all.”