Documentary follows refugees from Eritrea to R.I.

Monday, March 30, 2009

“Home Across Lands,” a documentary that follows the journey of Eritrean refugees from Ethiopia to Rhode Island, will screen this Thursday, followed by a talk with the film’s director, John Lavall. The event is sponsored by the Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment program.

With the aid of the International Institute of Rhode Island, the refugees, part of a distinct Eritrean community known as the Kunama, become acclimated to life in the United States. The Kunama are considered to be some of Eritrea’s original inhabitants. Though they are demographically one of the smallest groups in the region, they have sustained a language and culture distinct from the rest of the surrounding country’s. The Kunama inhabit some of Eritrea’s most fertile land and have therefore long been persecuted by the Eritrean government, leading them to flee across the border to live in Ethiopian refugees camps.

According to the press release, the documentary “illustrates the ways the International Institute bridges the vast divide from life in a refugee camp to life in Rhode Island as they help the Kunama in making sense of apartment living, public transportation, employment and health care, while nurturing their own community as they adapt to a larger and very foreign one.”

The International Insititute’s mission to assist in refugees’ acclimation process aligns with that of the BRYTE program. BRYTE matches Brown students with refugee families throughout Providence, allowing the students to serve as tutors and mentors. Through its tutoring program, BRYTE, like the IIRI, aims to alleviate the difficulties of assimilation experienced by refugees.

Lavall, who also produced the film, has won Emmy Awards for his previous work. He and a production team spent a year filming the Kunaman refugees as they bridged the nearly 7,000-mile gap between the Shimelba refugee camp in Northern Ethiopia and their new homes in Providence. Lavall and his production team filmed in both Ethiopia and Providence – a risky venture given that the camp lies within the 50 kilometer zone between Ethiopia and Eritrea deemed unsafe for travelers by the U.S. State Department.

Filming in Ethiopia presented other challenges to Lavall and his crew, he wrote in an email to the Herald. His production team had to avoid potential land mines on the roads, and to grapple with very limited time during which to conduct interviews with families.

Back in Providence, the production team also encountered several obstacles. Lavall wrote that the crew wanted to ensure the most accurate retelling of the refugees story as possible. Such in-depth study, however, presented the crew with additional challenges.

“To tell this story effectively we needed to immerse ourselves into the day-to-day workings of the resettlement office and into the lives of these newly (resettled) families,” Lavall wrote. “Our goal was capture as much as we could on film; their arrival at the airport, in the doctors office, the first day of school, a job interview.”

But Lavall explained that IIRI’s support was critical in allowing the crew to overcome these challenges.

“We were very fortunate to gain access and permission at every turn,” he wrote, “it’s a testament to the strength of IIRI within the community. Whenever we explained what we were doing and who’s story we were telling the mere mention of IIRI was enough for most people to agree wholeheartedly.”

Despite the challenges involved, the final product is an inspiring and informative documentary that highlights the success of refugee outreach programs in Providence.

“For many refugees, this is it,” says one IIRI staff worker in the film. “We are the only hope they have.”

“Home Across Lands” will screen at 7 p.m. on April 2 in the Hunter Carmichael Auditorium in the Hunter Laboratory on Waterman Street.