In commemoration of World Refugee Day Tuesday, the grassroots group Rutland Welcomes is presenting a free screening of the documentary "8 Borders, 8 Days," which tells the story of a Syrian refugee and her two young children living in Lebanon.
Organizers hope the screening, and panel discussion that will follow it at the Paramount Theatre, will spur dialogue and help educate people about what refugee families go through to reach safety.
The documentary centers on the story of Sham, a single mother of two who fled the war in Syria and was living as a refugee in Lebanon. While there, she meets Amanda Bailly, an American filmmaker living in Beirut.
Sham had hoped to be resettled in the United States and had undergone interviews and medical tests. Bailly says she’d even taken American cultural classes through the U.S. Embassy.
But life as a refugee in Lebanon was difficult, especially for a single woman with young children. After more than 14 months of waiting to hear if she’d be granted asylum, Bailly says Sham took matters into her own hands.
“I stayed in touch with her and when I heard that she had traveled to Istanbul, I knew what it meant,” says Bailly. “She was going to contact smugglers and make the journey to Europe that tens of thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of Syrians made that year.”
The film opens with a child’s drawing of fish and water. It slowly segues to the Aegean Sea that separates Turkey and Greece.
“Sham crossed eight borders from her home to get to Germany and I traveled with her for eight days,” says Bailly.
“And for people who know this migration journey through Europe, that’s an incredibly fast time to cross almost 3,000 miles. It was taking other people around three weeks,” explains the Bailly. “So it should show you how clever and resourceful this woman is.”
In the film, which is in Arabic with English subtitles, Shams’ 7-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son describe what it was like to flee to Greece in a rubber raft.
“They’re describing crossing the sea in a raft packed with smugglers and they’re making jokes about how one of them was sitting on top of the other,” says Bailly. “They’re being playful like any 7 and 11-year-old child is and yet they’re talking about how the raft started to fill with water and the raft started to sink in the middle of the sea and none of them knew how to swim.”
The children hold their hands up near their necks to show how high the water was getting.
“They remember being there,” says Bailly, “and the water was rising and rising and rising and the 7-year-old looks me in the eye and says, ‘We were worried we were going to drown in this boat.’”
Many Americans may remember seeing the heartbreaking photos of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Turkey; Kurdi was a Syrian toddler who drowned along with his mother and brother while making that same journey.
Amanda Bailly says Sham and her young children crossed to Greece that very same day in September 2015.
“I want people to see this film, who maybe have never have heard the personal story of the human beings effected by this sort of abstract immigration debate,” Bailly says.
Of the millions of refugees fleeing Syria, she says three quarters of them are women and children. They’re real people, not statistics, she adds.
Bailly, who grew up in Albany, New York, has been showing her film and hosting panel discussions in a number of U.S. cities. She says she’s been following the debate over resettlement in Rutland closely and hopes her film will help encourage more dialogue and understanding.
Hunter Berryhill is a member of Rutland Welcomes, a group that formed to support refugee resettlement in Rutland, which along with Amnesty International is co-sponsoring Tuesday’s event at the Paramount Theatre.
“We want to share information and educate the folks in the city to show the people who are resettling in Rutland are people in desperate need," Berryhill explains, "and who have faced very dangerous circumstances and that Rutland is going to become their safe haven.”
After the screening Tuesday night, panelists, including Berryhill, filmmaker Amanda Bailly, Amila Merdzanovic, director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and Rutland City Alderman William Notte will take part in a discussion moderated by David Moats of the Rutland Herald.
Former Mayor Christopher Louras will introduce the film and current Mayor David Allaire says he also hopes to attend. The free screening will start at 7 p.m. at the Paramount. Organizers request a $10 donation that they say will be donated to the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to assist refugee families in Rutland.