When local filmmakers Ben Powell and Harry Lee decided three years ago to chronicle the improbable story of five Somali Muslim teens and their dreams to pursue education in America, they thought they had a compelling story that could resonate within international development and education circles.
But after President Donald Trump signed executive orders aimed at curtailing immigration and refugee admittance, particularly from majority-Muslim nations like Somalia, the filmmakers realized that their soon-to-be-completed documentary, “Somaliland,” has taken on newfound significance.
“I see this as an opportunity to put a face on the people who are being affected by this [new immigration order],” Lee says. “For most Americans, they may not know anyone from Somalia or Yemen or Iran or Iraq who’s being affected by this.”
Powell, a George Mason High School alum, and Lee, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this month to raise the necessary funds to complete the documentary. The Kickstarter will remain open until 4 p.m. on Mar. 8 and the duo hopes to have a finished product by the summer.
The documentary follows the paths of five students from the Abaarso School of Science and Technology in Somaliland, a breakaway territory in northern Somalia that considers itself an independent state.
The school, founded by former Wall Street hedge fund manager, Jonathan Starr, has made it its mission to send students from the impoverished, war-torn nation to elite private high schools and universities in the United States.
It was in December 2015 that the tone and tenor of the project began to change.
That was when Trump, then just a long-shot Republican presidential candidate, first announced his plan for a “Muslim ban,” designed to bar all Muslims from entering the United States.
Lee and Powell were worried by the inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from a presidential candidate but believed this ban could not come to pass.
“I think we, like most people, thought there was no way he’s going to win,” Lee says. “It’s not going to matter.”
And then Trump won. In January, he signed the executive orders on immigration and refugees that were once just a worry for Abaarso students and the local filmmakers, never believed to be possible.
While a federal appeals panel recently rejected the president’s travel ban, the administration is currently working on a new executive order to again restrict travel for citizens from Somalia and six other nations.
But even with all the uncertainty surrounding the law, even with rising Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, Abaarso students forge on.
Hamse is one of those students.
The teenager came to the United States from Somaliland in August to attend the St. Albans School, an all-boys prep school in Washington, D.C.
Like many of his Abaarso classmates, Hamse wants to get an American education so he can go back to Somaliland and help develop his home country’s lacking infrastructure. He dreams of studying electrical engineering at an Ivy League school like Cornell, Dartmouth or the University of Pennsylvania, and plans on visiting the schools this spring.
Hamse is supposed to return to Abaarso in June for his final year of high school. He planned on applying to the Ivy League schools from Somaliland and coming back to America to attend university the following year. That future is now murky.
Yet Hamse remains faithful that everything will work out.
“The first time I heard of this [travel ban] it was something I was not expecting from a U.S. president,” he says. “But I’m optimistic the people will overturn his ban.”
For Powell and Lee, the hope is that by showing these personal stories of resilience, heart and the students’ unrequited yearning to better themselves and their families, people will begin to examine current events in a new light.
“We’re hoping through an intimate look into these kids’ lives — and through empathy — we’ll be able to show people, ‘Wow, these kids are being directly affected.’ “ Lee says. “‘Is this really the right way to deal with this?’”