Monday, June 20 was World Refugee Day. To mark the occasion and raise concerns for issues of global migration, the NFB released the new short documentary 19 Days. Sisters Asha Siad and Roda Siad, the daughters of refugees who came to Canada from Somalia, direct the film, which takes viewers inside the walls of the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre in Calgary where refugees stay for 19 days after their arrival before moving into the city. The film gives an observational look at families from Burundi, Sudan, and Syria as they come and go during these 19 days. This snapshot adds to the larger conversation of Canada’s role in assisting refugees into the community by showing the complexity of resettlement and integration, and of making a new home in unfamiliar territory.
POV chatted with the Siad sisters via phone ahead of the premiere of 19 Days to discuss the documentary and where it sits within the broader scope of the current global migration crisis.
POV: Pat Mullen
AS: Asha Siad
RS: Roda Siad
POV: Why did the Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre offer the right setting to tell this particular story?
AS: We’re telling a story about the global migration crisis and the best place to do that was through this house because it’s actually the only resettlement centre in Canada that was created to feel and look like a home to ease the transition of refugees.
POV: Oh, really?
AS: It’s very unique because over 10 000 refugees have walked through those doors and it opened in 1994, so it’s witnessed 22 years of refugees travelling from around the world. People from Bosnia, Sudan, Burundi, and Iraq come through that house, so there are so many stories. It’s very transient—families are arriving and leaving every 19 days. And since it was an observational documentary, it was a contained space, so it was amazing to see what was unfolding within the house.
POV: Have you been able to observe other resettlement centres that are more institutional in their shape and not as a home? How does the home itself make people feel settled?
RS: We have not been able to observe other centres because in Calgary there aren’t any other centres. But you bring up a good point: as Asha said, this centre was initially designed in the form of a house. The idea was that if you build it as a house and the look and feel of the inside is like a house, that will somehow ease the experience of the integration process for refugees. What we found very interesting from being there was that there’s a disconnection between, for example, the staff who work at this resettlement centre and the residents who live there. The residents are only there for 19 days. It’s a fast-paced schedule and they need to learn all aspects of Canadian society within 19 days before they are basically sent out into the city, so there’s a sense of fast-paced life and a temporary feeling. The rooms are very bare. It’s very basic. The cutlery they use is plastic. It’s supposed to feel like a home, it appears like a home, but at the same time, if you spend a lot of time at the centre, there’s another side to it where it feels isolating and temporary. That’s something that attracted us to the centre as well, that temporary sense.
POV: I really like the style, too. What motivated this approach over, say, interviews with the subjects?
RS: Because we were in a contained environment, we were able to see the different emotions and experiences that these families brought with them. The observational style made the most sense because, as filmmakers, we didn’t want to impose our own views or narrate. We wanted the stories to come out as we witnessed them and as the families are sharing them. We live in a time where mainstream media are imposing their views about refugees and we see all these depictions about refugees and what their experiences must be like, but no one has experienced it unless you are that person. We really wanted to make sure that what you what you see is their experience, rather than our style as directors.
AS: We also wanted to give Canadians a very personal look inside the lives of these refugees and show them the reality of what it’s like to be a refugee in the world today.
POV: How willing were the refugees to participate? How did you gain access to them so quickly upon their arrival?
RS: It was definitely an interesting filming experience. There weren’t that many opportunities off camera to get to know the families and establish trust, but as you mentioned, we were there filming and the families would arrive. Sometimes we had to film when they arrived and, of course, we got their consent after we explained the project in detail to them, but because of language barriers and because of the time, sometimes we had to explain after filming. If they agreed, we continued, and if not, we didn’t use the footage. Many families didn’t make it into the film for various reasons. Some of them didn’t work with the story and others weren’t comfortable. The language barrier was the one of biggest obstacles. We were filming and yet we didn’t understand what everyone was saying because there were up to ten different languages being spoken at the same time. It was only after we hired transcribers that we understood what they were saying. We just had to be patient and keep filming.
POV: That’s interesting. Did you find that the language barrier helped the observational approach because you couldn’t necessarily interact with the subjects?
RS: Exactly. That required, on our end, patience. We were filming over a period of ten days and ten hours each day and there was that element of patience in not knowing what was being said. But even if we don’t understand what’s being said, we understand what’s being said in the emotions on their faces. When Mustafa [one of the subjects in the doc] calls home for the first time in four years, we could see the tension. Even though we didn’t quite understand what he was saying, we could see that this was an important moment for him for him to reconnect with the family he hasn’t seen in four years.
POV: Yes, that’s a very strong scene. I’m also surprised by two of the first stories we see: one about the family where the father says they came so that their son could get surgery, and the other about the man who wants to send his financial assistance back home. Why present these stories first in the film?
AS: One of the reasons why we wanted to present these stories first is to change the perception of refugees and show that there isn’t just one refugee story—there are multiple narratives. There are people who come to the house and are excited to start their lives, but then there are others like Mustafa who are physically settled, but not mentally resettled. He’s bringing baggage from home and we wanted to show that upfront. It was also important to show the process and the questions the counselors were asking them. That really reveals their stories and some of the baggage they’re bringing with them to Canada.
RS: I understand that when people look at those scenes, some people may think, ‘One individual came to Canada because he wants to send money home and another came to Canada because he wants medical attention for his son.’ These are reasons why some refugees are coming to Canada. That may not be seen in a positive light, but I think as Asha was saying, not only does it show the complex realities and the complex issues that refugee populations face when they come to a new country, I would hope it makes us think about their experiences differently. We sometimes think that people are coming to a new country, which means they get a new life and that they get to start all over. They have new opportunities, so it might not make sense to a viewer that this person wants to send money home, but we should think about how people’s lives don’t necessarily start all over. You can’t reverse what’s happened back home. I hope by showing these scenes, we can encourage a sense of empathy for these families. People can’t erase the people that they’re related to or the people they left back home. They can’t just forget all about that and start a new life when they start back home. As filmmakers, we decided to include those scenes because people can’t erase their lives. It takes more than 19 days.
POV: I’m glad you said that. The film confronts some misperceptions people may have and shows the complexity of integration.
POV: You both came to Canada from Somalia as small children. Have things changed since your own resettlement?
RS: As you say, we were quite young, so there’s not a whole lot that we remember. For us, growing up, our experiences of resettlement and integration came through our parents. So seeing the struggles that they had, the barriers they faced, seeing all of that had an impact on the people we are today and the work that we do. Our family came at a time where Calgary had a very small Somali community, almost non-existent—
POV: Oh, wow. That’s hard.
RS: It’s very small—not like Toronto at all. So, for us, moving to Calgary and not having any social networks, not having any friends or family here, our extended family had to go through this integration process and it took a while. Some were very successful and have their own businesses, some were not and some are still going through a struggle. And so for us, even on a personal level, all the opportunities that my sister and I have had in life are the result of the opportunities that our parents had to sacrifice. And I think that narrative is the same for many second-generation youths as well.
POV: How do refugees connect with people from their home country upon arriving in Canada? What sort of networks are there?
AS: They’ve created relationships with a lot of different communities throughout Calgary. If they’re helping a family look for a place to stay, they actually reach out to their ethnic communities. So say, for Mustafa, someone from the Darfur community would have been called and they would have welcomed him and given him some information about the community. The house has been there for 23 years and it has many connections to different ethnic communities through the refugee groups that come to them. Once they leave the house, they have access to the house and the counsellors for a year. It’s a really good transition process for them. It’s funny, actually: it’s been one year since we filmed and we recently ran into some of the families we filmed and it’s been one year since they’ve arrived. They seem to be doing well so that’s nice to see.
POV: Oh, that’s great to hear. Have they seen the film?
AS: No, not yet. They’re going to be seeing it Monday at our screening.
POV: Your previous project, Living at the Border, looked at migration in Italy. How does the Canadian system measure up against others?
RS: Living at the Border is a web-based documentary, so it involves different kinds of multimedia. With that, we were looking at the experiences of refugees, asylum seekers, and even migrants when they’re coming from different parts of Africa. For us, what we learned from that project is that the issues related to integration that Europe is having now, they’re having these discussions about what the price is of these people in a society. For this project, we definitely wanted to look at the same issue from the perspective of home. Canada is definitely a country of immigration and is very different from European countries like Italy. For us, the question that remained the same was, “What does integration really mean?” How long does it take an individual to become integrated? Does that even happen? What are the supports and measures that are put into place to help a person integrate and who decides what these measures are? The questions were actually similar between the projects, but the answers were different because Canada has an actual integration process in place whereas Italy didn’t at the time?
POV: When the film premieres on World Refugee Day, what sort of action do you hope it inspires?
AS: We’re hoping that it expands the dialogue for refugees and helps shape the conversation. Canada has been so welcoming in accepting over 25000 Syrian refugees, so that’s a global migration crisis that’s still going on, so we’re hoping that this film continues the conversation about refugees, resettlement, and integration. To keep the conversation going is our hope.