Day One. Directed by Lori Miller. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2019. 82 minutes.

Sonita. Directed by Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami. New York: Women Make Movies, 2015. 91 minutes.

Reviewed by Karen Culcasi

The lives and experiences of refugees across the globe differ immensely, but all refugees experience challenges and successes. Fleeing war and oppression and crossing international boundaries to seek safety and security is just the beginning of the story of refugee lives. Dealing with past traumas while trying to build home and community in unfamiliar places, often in dire situations and lacking political rights, refugees experience immense challenges while exhibiting incredible resilience and ingenuity. Two films about the very different experiences of refugees—Sonita and Day One—demonstrate this interplay of struggles and strength and leave the viewer with a concomitant sense of disbelief and hope.

Along with several family members, ten-year-old Sonita fled Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 2000s. Neighboring Iran has allowed Afghans to resettle within its borders for decades, but Sonita was an undocumented migrant—she has no birth certificate, no passport—and therefore she was unable to attend public school and receive basic state aid. Yet the viewer sees Sonita as a confident young woman who can stand up for herself. She is a burgeoning singer and rapper and dreams of being like the worldwide popular Iranian performer Yas.

At the age of sixteen, after six years in Iran, her remaining family in Afghanistan decided it was time to sell her off to a husband—at a $9000 price tag—so that her brother could have the money to buy a wife for himself. Child marriage and bride price (also known as dowry) has many variations, but it is a sexist and gendered practice based on the assumption that women are the property of men and can literally be bought and sold.1 This issue is first addressed in Sonita when our protagonist comforts a friend who recently found out that she is being sold to an older man as his second wife. “We are not sheep,” Sonita tells her.

Sonita begs her family for her freedom, but they refuse. Subsequently, filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami negotiates with the family and ultimately decides to pay them $2000 to buy Sonita for six months before she will be sold for marriage. The camera turns to Maghami briefly, as she struggles with the ethics of filmmaking and whether or not to interfere with the life of her subject.

During her found six months, Sonita enters a competition to make a rap video about voting in an upcoming Afghan election. She wins! Soon afterward, she makes the rap video that will bring her international fame: “Bride for Sale” expresses the horror of being seen as a commodity and losing her personhood, and it calls on parents to stop selling their daughters. Amazed with her story and strength, an aid group in the United States contacts Sonita and offers her a scholarship at a private school in Utah, thus “saving” her from child marriage. With the help of Maghami, she soon arrives at the school and only then calls to tell her mother about her move. Sonita’s life as a refugee in the United States and as a young woman who escaped child marriage now begins, but her story is not over. She continues to make music and to fight for the rights of girls and women.

The Nahed Chapman New American Academy (NCNAA) in St. Louis, Missouri, is a public “transition” school that helps migrant and refugee children get accustomed to America. The film Day One describes it a “soft place to land” for these children before they attend regular public schools because it gives them knowledge and resources to succeed: they make friends and learn about gardening; they gain skills to cope with emotional issues and trauma; and they have a chance to be fully immersed in academic coursework.

The school is a valuable resource because the children and their families have many hardships. Refugees in the United States receive only 4-6 months of support from the government. Because many live at or near the poverty level, they work hard—often in multiple jobs—so that they can transition to caring for themselves. One older student works a night job and ends up quitting school in order to support his family. Moreover, some live in dangerous neighborhoods and have even been threatened or beaten. Despite these challenges, as Day One highlights, refugees and migrants have enriched and literally helped to build their city by starting businesses and getting an education.

Day One also addresses the poignant issue of increasing hostility directed toward migrants, refugees, and Muslims in the United States. The film discusses how the 2017 Muslim ban and Donald Trump’s massive cuts to the refugee resettlement program has had immense effects. Existing students felt hurt and confused about how the country that welcomed them could also be so hostile. And due to the federal cuts, enrollment in the school decreased 50 percent, causing some teachers to lose their jobs.

Both these movies highlight the varied struggles that refugees manage long after the act of moving ends. Their lives are full of complexity, and among all their struggles there is immense resilience and strength. While Sonita has a pointed gendered angle, both work toward the feminist goal of understanding everyday experiences and life at a granular level, so I strongly recommend them. Each has its own unique contributions to the classroom and each will enrich curriculum whether the concern is varied refugee experiences or child marriage.2

1 For more on the impact of dowry, see Poonam Saxena, “The Menace of Dowry: Laws, Interpretation, Implementation,” in From Patriarchy to Empowerment: Women’s Participation, Movements, and Rights in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, ed. Valentine M. Moghadam (Syracyse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007) , 258-77; Shafiqa Ahmadi, “Theory vs. Practice: Women’s Rights and Gender Equity in Afghanistan,” Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice 18, no. 2 (2016): 361-79; Shazia Gulzar, Muhammad Nauman, Farzan Yahya, Shagafat Ali, and Mariam Yaqoob, “Dowry System in Pakistan,” Asian Economic and Financial Review 2, no. 7 (2012): 784-94; Joe McCarthy, “9 Reasons Why Dowries Are Horrible for Women,” Global Citizen, June 6, 2017.

2 Patricia Ehrkamp, “Geographies of Migration I: Refugees,” Progress in Human Geography 41, no. 6 (2017): 813-22; Lauren Fritzsche and Liese Nelso, “Refugee Resettlement, Place, and the Politics of Islamophobia,” Social & Cultural Geography 21, no.4 (2020): 508-26; Cynthia S. Gorman and Karen Culcasi, “Invasion and Colonization: Islamophobia and Anti-refugee Sentiment in West Virginia,” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 5 (August 2020).

Karen Culcasi is an associate professor of geography in the Department of Geology and Geography at West Virginia University. Karen’s research uses critical and feminist geopolitical frames to examine imaginings of belonging and sense of place. She has a book contract with the University of Chicago Press for her manuscript Displacing Territory: Imaginings and Practices of Refuge in Jordan. She also has two newer projects on Palestinian migrants in the United States and Islamophobia in rural America.