I never wanted to make a film about refugees, but Sedra’s story changed that
I never wanted to make a film about refugees, but Sedra’s story changed that

I never wanted to make a documentary about refugees. I felt like it would be exploiting an already vulnerable community for my own gain, and I was so adamant not to be that filmmaker. But this story of Sedra, a Syrian teenager trying to make sense of loss and build a new life in New Brunswick, changed my mind and helped me understand my own family’s past.

My father was a refugee. He rarely spoke about it but I saw in his eyes what loss of childhood did to the most important man in my life. So when I saw Sedra for the first time, I recognized it immediately: The lost generation.

I had to make a choice. I knew that making this film would be painful for both of us, and I was reluctant to re-open wounds. But it was Sedra’s stubborn smile that made the decision for me. It lit up our Skype conversation and later lit up the room when I met her in person. Through her pain, Sedra’s smile never faltered; she was determined to make it through these dark times. Here was a teenager who’d been knocked down repeatedly but was still standing, ready to take on the world. Her story mattered.

17-year-old Sedra has not seen her six siblings for 746 days.

Beyond the headlines

I had seen one documentary after the other about how lucky the Syrian refugees are for being allowed into our country. We gave ourselves a collective pat on the back and a gold star for being on the right side of history. Canadians had stepped up.

But what if that’s not the whole story? What if a vulnerable person’s story doesn’t end the minute they land in Toronto Pearson Airport? What about the people they had to leave behind? What if coming here wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to them?

Maybe it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Families are still separated, senior citizens aren’t always accommodated and teenagers like Sedra were taking on more responsibility than most adults, as her family’s only hope. Have we provided enough support for this new, lost generation?

Sedra and her family opened their doors and their hearts to me. They let me tell a nuanced story about a father-daughter bond so strong that no war or heartache could ever break it.

Sedra and her father, Mohamed in their new home of Saint John, NB.

I remember the day we wrapped filming. We were saying our goodbyes, and the family stood by the door, tears in their eyes. I tried to be as professional as possible as I walked out that door but the minute I was back in my hotel room I started sobbing. Sedra had become family and I was leaving family in dire straits.

I knew that this documentary mattered, and telling this story could help, I hope, in reuniting their family. But I could not stop thinking about leaving this young woman with the burden of the world on her shoulders. And I couldn’t stop seeing the similarities between this amazing, headstrong girl and what I imagine my dad was experiencing when he was 17.

I scrolled through my phone for something — anything — to make sense of how attached I was to this story and landed on my dad’s contact information. I paused and it hit me. My dad made it out. He gave me and my siblings a life separate from his trauma. He persevered, and so could Sedra. Maybe it’s not too late for this teenager to build a future that will not be haunted by her past. Maybe she just needs a little support from all of us. She’s the most remarkable 17 year-old I know and she deserves a chance to define a life of her own.

Sedra now bears the weight of her family's future.

  • Watch Sedra on CBC Short Docs