Sundance documentary to feature Catonsville area Syrian refugees

Madiha Algothany, left, a Syrian refugee is joined by Catonsville resident Leah Hayes as she talks about adjusting to life in Baltimore on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017.
Madiha Algothany, left, a Syrian refugee is joined by Catonsville resident Leah Hayes as she talks about adjusting to life in Baltimore on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A documentary following the lives of four refugee families as they adjust to life in the Baltimore area will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next week.

Three of the four families featured in “This Is Home: A Refugee Story” live in a Baltimore neighborhood adjoining Catonsville.


The film is entered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the festival. It will debut on Jan. 20.

“The city is so interesting,” director Alexandra Shiva said, explaining why she chose Baltimore as the setting for her documentary. “There’s so much tension, but also so much rebuilding.” Shiva lives in New York City.


“This Is Home” centers around the families’ first eight months in the United States, a limited period during which they received support from the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement agency with an office in Baltimore.

“They have eight months to learn America,” Shiva said.

The documentary was made to be an intimate portrait of that struggle, Shiva said. A trailer shows the families taking English classes and learning to do everything from shopping for groceries to reading American street signs.

“When you have to leave your home and there’s no choice and you have to make a new life somewhere else, that pain is unhealable,” Shiva said.

Catonsville churches are working with Syrian refugee families in the Baltimore area, giving them a local support system to help them overcome the challenges of starting a new life in a foreign country.

The crew shot almost 300 hours of footage over the course of more than a year, beginning in May 2016. They began filming most of the families less than a week after their arrival in the U.S., she said.

Through filming, Shiva found that the families who settled most successfully were those who made American friends and connections.

One of the friendships in the documentary, between Catonsville resident Leah Hayes and Syrian refugee Madiha Algothany, was profiled in the Catonsville Times in November.

“One reason Madiha has been so successful is that she has an entire group,” Shiva said. “She has a team of women around her who want to help her be independent.”

Hayes said that she, along with Algothany and her three sons, will attend Sundance to see the premiere, spending three days at the festival in Park City, Utah.

“I want to show that refugees came here to teach their children and provide a decent life for them,” Algothany said of the movie in a text message.

“I’m just very proud to be a part of it,” Hayes said of the film. “I think it does give you a good perspective on what it feels like to come to this country as a refugee … The excitement, the anxieties they come over with, and the struggles.”

One of the film’s executive producers gave them a grant to bring the subjects of the documentary to Utah for the premiere, Shiva said. Three of the four families plan to attend.


“Sundance … is such a crazy, otherworldly experience for them that I didn’t want them not to see it,” Shiva said.

The families are scheduled to stay with local host families in Utah. Those same host families hosted the subjects of the Baltimore documentary “Step” when it premiered at Sundance last year, Shiva said.

After the premiere, Shiva said there are plans to screen “This Is Home” at local theaters in the Baltimore area.

It also eventually will be available to buy on DVD or to stream online, the filmmaker said. The film was picked up by network Epix, she said.

Shiva hopes the film helps connect people to the global refugee crisis on a human level and inspires viewers to act locally.

“There are many ways to integrate people to the community,” she said. “There are many ways you can help.”

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