HISTORY OF THE DOCUMENTARY
A front page New York Times article on March 12, 2003 inspired
me with a passionate commitment to make this documentary.
I immediately began working with the International Organization
for Migration (IOM), the United Nations High Commissioner
on Refugees, the State Department, and the Joint Voluntary
Agencies to make this project happen. After eight months,
I was finally able to convince IOM to schedule families slated
for Atlanta and Springfield in the same Cultural Orientation
class in Kenya so that there would be a pool of people to
choose from during the first shoot. With a grant from the
Ceil and Michael Pulitzer Foundation, I took a crew of three
people to Kenya in January 2004. The crew consisted of Joan
Churchill on camera, her husband Alan Barker on sound, and
Dina Hossain as associate producer. Joan’s son Barney
Broomfield volunteered on the production and shot second unit
After a somewhat rocky beginning at the Kakuma refugee camp
in Kenya, the Somali Bantu community welcomed us and gave
us complete access to everything in the camp. We were fortunate
to find the families mentioned above, one bound for Atlanta
and the other for Springfield, who were eager to participate
and who were very much at ease in front of the camera. We
filmed them for two weeks in their homes, in adult literacy
classes, in soccer games, healing dances, and in their Cultural
Orientation class. We also filmed them telling harrowing stories
of murder and rape in Somalia and talking about their hopes
for America. These people are heartbreakingly beautiful, completely
open to the filming process, surprisingly natural in front
of the camera, and eager to participate.
In late February I received the news that the families were
about to come to America. This was a difficult moment. Reaching
into savings and calling in favors, I flew to Nairobi on March
6 and met up with Barney Broomfield, who had shot second camera
in January. We filmed the refugees’ last three days
in Kakuma, including Adan and Madina’s wild nighttime
departure party lit by Coleman lanterns and the headlights
of a security-patrol jeep, Arbai’s more stately departure
dance, and poignant good-byes to relatives and friends they
may never see again.
We flew with Adan and Madina’s family to Nairobi, filming
their flight and first experience of a modern city in a disjointed
way to reflect the refugees’ amazement and disorientation.
On March 17 we boarded a charter of three-hundred Somali Bantu
refugees and filmed the family’s flight to America.
They weathered the trip amazingly well, and were very excited
when they saw the frozen mainland of North America.
Joan Churchill met us at Newark airport to take over the shooting
for the next two weeks. We filmed the five-hour limousine
ride to Hartford, where the refugees were met by Somali staff
members from Jewish Family Services and taken to temporary
housing in Springfield provided by a Catholic church –
a wonderfully diverse scene of Muslims sponsored by a Jewish
organization staying in a former nunnery. The refugees were
happy to be in America, despite freezing temperatures, strange
food, inexplicable canned goods and kitchen apparatus, and
confusing interactions with neighbors.
In early April, Joan and I flew to Atlanta to meet Arbai’s
family as they landed from Nairobi. They spent their first
week at the home of evangelical Presbyterians, another unique
experience. In addition to the scenes mentioned in the treatment
(arrival at the airport, watching The Lion King, etc.) we
filmed Arbai, her daughters, and the Somali translator in
an intense discussion of female genital mutilation, an unfortunate
cultural practice of the Somali Bantu, which is illegal here.
Later that month, I returned to Springfield to film the children’s
first school days. The younger ones immediately found American
friends, while the older boys stayed close to their two Somali
Bantu classmates, unsure of how to connect to the other students.
Their ESL class was especially lively, with refugees and immigrants
from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Dominican Republic, Puerto
Rico, and Bosnia. These classmates are potentially a rich
source of friendships for the boys, and of stories for the
With grants from the Sundance Documentary Fund, the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting, and ITVS, we continued to film with
the families in Springfield and Atlanta through September
2005, capturing moments of struggle and difficulty as well
as humor and poignancy as they navigated their way in this
strange new land. Aden, a farmer in Somalia, finally got a
job as a landscaper and carpenter; and Arbai, through a Goodwill
Industries training program, is now working as a janitor at
the Georgia State Archives. The younger children are doing
well in school, as is Sahara, Arbai’s wild daughter,
while the Springfield schools have failed Aden and Madina’s
teenage boys, dashing their hopes for an education.
Our last shoot in Springfield was the naming ceremony of Aden
and Madina’s first-born American child, Jahora Aden
Kabir, a joyful moment of celebration. In September, the beautiful
wedding that Arbai gave her daughter Khadija , a wildly colorful
affirmation of family bonds and culture.