Dec. 15, 2021

Documentary film project highlights voices from communities too often overlooked

Art, film and storytelling combine to facilitate difficult conversations with newcomer families on resettlement and education
Rahat Zaidi uses art, film and storytelling to foster positive relationships between resettled families and educational partners.

At the age of 17, Lula Oman fled her home in Ethiopia. She then spent a little more than a decade in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to Canada as a government-sponsored refugee 10 years ago. While her opportunities for formal education were limited, she has remained ardently involved in the learning experiences of her four children.

Oman’s story is one of several recounted as part of an innovative study that aims to foster positive relationships between resettled families and educational partners.

The Werklund School of Education’s Dr. Rahat Zaidi, PhD, and the University of British Columbia’s Dr. Anusha Kassan, PhD, have joined with filmmaker Nina Sudra to produce a documentary that examines immigrant anxiety and trauma as they relate to wellness and mental health. Entitled Bridging the Gap, the film centres personal narratives of resilience and hope.

“The reality is that many newcomer families fall through the cracks of our educational system,” says Zaidi. “Our purpose in doing this is to tell their stories through their voices and provide a holistic perspective that's also coming from a positive approach, and not a deficit perspective.”

The perspectives gained from these first-person accounts will be used to develop an educational resource for community organizations and school boards to use when exploring immigrant families’ integration and resettlement.

Lula Oman welcomed the research team to share in a tea ceremony with her family

Building relationships

But recording these personal experiences is not simply a matter of thrusting a camera into the faces of immigrant children and parents. The conversations can be uncomfortable as they address challenging topics, so trust is essential.

For almost two decades, Zaidi has built connections with Calgary’s immigrant community and is known as a researcher passionate about improving quality of life for newcomers; one who works to create a sense of belonging by breaking down silos between education systems, culture and society.

This relationship building paid off when Zaidi and her associates were recruiting volunteer families during an earlier phase of the project. For this initiative, participants were supplied with iPads, journals, markers and maps of Calgary, the world and their neighbourhoods. Families were asked to use these ‘cultural probes’, as the academics termed them, to document where they felt safe and welcome or what spurred feelings of anxiety and fear in their new homeland, and within their children’s schools.

Participants shared their thoughts about the process during a check-in with the researchers; individual and group interviews about the content created and key themes followed. Sudra was then welcomed into the homes of willing families to capture their insights on film. The results are powerful stories like Oman’s.

Recognizing diversity

Zaidi says current global crises have created a greater awareness of marginalized communities. This, coupled with Calgary’s increasing diversity, makes the timing of the research opportune.    

“Calgary has more than 50 per cent of the population that represent neither English nor French as their first language. Educators need to recognize that the classroom norm consists of a multilingual and multicultural student core.

"It is important that educators be cognizant of the divide that exists between newcomer students and those who were born in this country and work toward building trusting relationships among home, school and community.”

Zaidi, who received the 2020 City of Calgary Award for Community Achievement in Education, outlined this project as well as several other successful community engagement undertakings at the Werklund School’s annual Distinguished Research Lecture. Her complete presentation — United By Our Diversity: Building Connections Through Culture, Language and Education — is available online.

This project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada. To learn more and support the Bridging the Gap film project, please visit UCrowdfund.