A family from Mauritania, Northwest Africa, escapes to Atlanta, Ga., for a new beginning. For these immigrants, stoves, toilets, and even doorknobs are strange and unheard of devices. When faced with complaints from neighbors for urinating outdoors, the family’s response was that clean water (from the toilet bowl) is for drinking: why waste it?
“There is a profound difference between cultures and what these people have to adjust to,” said William Silva Reddington, director of “A Place In This World.” “These families have kids with them who would be going to school with American kids.”
The culture shift poses challenges for the children. “A Place In This World,” directed by Reddington and Adam Maurer, is an upcoming documentary profiling a small charter school called the International Community School (ICS).
Founded 25 years ago during a period of economic prosperity in Atlanta, ICS has taken on the task of helping immigrant children adjust. “It is not a school designed to ostracize refugees,” said Dr. Laurent Dittman, principal of ICS. “Twenty-five years ago, refugee kids were sent in clumps to the same school, with a system waiting for them to fail.”
The ICS is designed to integrate refugee children with American kids in the classroom and provide children of immigrant families “a unique opportunity to smoothly transition into the American culture and education system,” according to its website, while teaching young American kids how to look at diversity positively.
Half of the school’s population consists of refugee children, while the other half are traditional American children. It’s the only school of its kind in the United States.
Compared to schools nationwide, ICS’s standardized test scores are not as high. “But they don’t have our population and challenges. We currently represent 35 nations on campus,” said Dittman. “But we are not doing badly either.”
However, the school does have one of the highest test scores within DeKalb County, according to Reddington.
Dittman started off as a consultant, visiting the ICS campus to help create policies. “I came to the school, talked to the principal and a few kids. I remember going back to the car and immediately calling my wife to tell her I want to work here.”
Dittman described his experience at the school as “visual and emotional.”
“You walk onto campus and the first thing that struck us were, well, the children. That’s the most amazing part,” said filmmaker Reddington. “The student body is a microcosm of the whole world.”
The film revolves around the question: “Is prejudice and ignorance entirely learned, or is it an ‘intrinsic nature?’”
The directors’ goal was to create a film that “didn’t focus on the negative aspects of education. … We have stuck to the principle that inspiration and hope are more powerful catalysts than anger and fear.”
Dittman recounts the story of a young Sudanese girl who was a “skeleton, literally arriving straight from the camps.” She constantly hid under tables because she feared the school would be bombed. Teachers could only interact with her under tables.
Within a few years, she became “gregarious and spoke English, coming to my office everyday to have apples,” Dittman said. “There are many similar cases.”
Zozan, one of the characters the film follows, is a troubled Iraqi girl who often disrupts class. According to the directors, she had a difficult time balancing her patriarchal and Muslim home life with her new liberal life at school.
Drew, a dedicated teacher, “stuck with her even though she pushed him away a lot. He wanted the children to know he wasn’t going anywhere.”
She starts the film in 2008, at the age of 10. By the time filming concluded, Zozan was almost 13. By the end, she completely changed her attitude toward school, according to the directors.
Zade Clark is a typical Georgian sixth-grader who enjoys hunting and Nascar. He found himself fitting in everywhere across town, except his school (ICS).
During President Obama’s inauguration speech, the classroom was filled with joyous screaming. “In the film, you see Zade sitting slumped in his chair with his head in his hands, almost weeping at Obama being elected,” Reddington said.
“This is not utopia, this is a real place. Not everything works out fine.” Dittman said.“It’s a political as well as cultural thing that made Zade feel like an outcast,” Reddington said. “Ultimately he made a lot of good friends at the school.”
Zade and his father agree that his experience at ICS had been positive and meaningful.