HOW FAR IS HOME: Welcoming School In An Unwelcoming Country

Refugees from abroad are being accepted into the United States at drastically lower rates than ever before. In 2016, there was a maximum limit of 85,000 refugees. In 2020, the maximum limit dropped to a mere 18,000. In Apo W. Bazidi’s thoughtful documentary short How Far is Home, he contrasts the treatment of refugees at Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy in Cleveland, OH to President Trump’s escalating series of harsh travel bans.

A Tale of Two Siblings

Clocking in at just under 22 minutes, Bazidi’s How Far is Home sharpens its focus on Iraqi refugees Ahmed and Ruba Mohammed. Although only a year apart, Ahmed and Ruba couldn’t be more different. He likes soccer and works after school busing tables at a restaurant. She has depression and trauma from losing all her childhood friends in a Syrian bombing.

HOW FAR IS HOME: Welcoming School In An Unwelcoming Country
source: Burn A Light Productions

Ruba is arguably the more interesting subject, but the film pushes its guarded message of optimism by following around Ahmed a good deal more. He has a sunnier disposition, helps new students with translations from Arabic to English, and takes advantage of the extracurricular activities. Other than her tragic past, we get fleeting glimpses of Ruba for most of the flick.

Making the Grade

A large focus of Apo W. Bazidi’s short is how the Thomas Jefferson International Newcomers Academy operates. Founded by Natividad Pagán in 2010 as a safe haven for immigrant students, the K-12 school features teachers and students from all over the world. Most students get their footing there for a few years before being given a choice to transfer to another school.

How Far is Home is shot in a very straightforward style. Bucking the trend of many documentaries of late, there is no narration from the director. In a memorable sequence, we see Ahmed get off the bus, get screened by a metal detector, and patted down. He’s smiling. This is clearly business as usual.

HOW FAR IS HOME: Welcoming School In An Unwelcoming Country
source: Burn A Light Productions

As Ahmed travels from school to work, we hear news broadcasts and clips of President Trump revolving around his various travel bans preventing people from certain countries flying into the United States. The counterpoint is a nice idea, but it isn’t carried through to a strong conclusion. Solemn piano music plays over title card stating statistics on United States refugee acceptance rates plunging, but it doesn’t hit as hard as it could.

Perhaps the most striking rebuke is a class assignment in which students offer up traits a good President needs. One student writes on the board “Does not have racism.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

How Far is Home has a hell of a lot of ground to cover in its short running time. It hits more often than it misses, but it lacks a certain cohesion. This is a well-made documentary with good food for thought that doesn’t quite stick the landing.

How did How Far is Home strike you? Please discuss in the comments!

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