A Mexican woman reads dreams of refugee girls aloud

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.—Alejandra Alcala is a long way from Queretaro, where she was born. She is in a movie theater near the Persian Gulf, listening intently to the questions of restless girls who are there with their mothers; she holds her baby herself for several months.

A few years ago, during the pandemic, it was far away when I was emailing from prison with a woman named Asmaa, a Syrian who lived in a refugee camp in Jordan.

The worlds of both are different: the Mexican woman has lived in different countries thanks to her father’s work, and the Syrian woman had to flee her own, ravaged by war. But somehow, life conspired to be part of the Alcala-directed documentary The Neighborhood Storyteller.

Asmaa shows in the film how she teaches other girls to read aloud and often asks them how they imagine their lives in 10 years and what they dream of being outside of work at home. Asmaa guides them to come to terms with difficult situations they experienced fleeing the war with their families to find refuge in a refugee camp where Alejandra found them.

That search began in 2018, when the Mexican left her job at a Spanish technology company for more humanitarian causes.

“I was going through an existential crisis. I was shocked to be in these super big companies investing tons of money in pointless things for no profit. It frustrates me so much to see this waste of people who have a lot of money and just want to show it off without thinking that there are other realities,” he says.

Asmaa’s is an example of this. Married by obligation for no more than 14 years, she had no opportunity to continue her studies. His life has gained meaning thanks to the We love reading (WLR) initiative, which aims to get people into reading; not in reasonable terms, but liberating.

The Syrian woman began to share many afternoons with the daughters of refugee families, to whom she conveys the idea that they can smile at the future, whether it is uncertain or that they are not worth less for having left the place where they were born.

This way of seeing reality gave the Mexican woman the tools she needed to make a documentary. Last night, the eyes of personalities and media in the United Arab Emirates were focused on his speech, the highlight of the Sharjah International Film Festival for Children and Youth.

But she believes the most iconic encounter took place earlier last Tuesday, when, accompanied by her baby, she lived with local girls and their mothers.

“Is the story true? What is the message?” he was asked in this first chat, intimate and informal: “Of course it’s real and it has very strong messages, like it’s important to look inside ourselves, just like Asmaa. She is transforming the ability to read to empower girls, no matter how difficult your life may be and the circumstances you live in, no one should take away the opportunity to continue learning and chasing a dream. To believe in yourself,” she told them.

refocus narratives

During the filming process, Alcala encountered another reality: that good wishes are not enough to change what thousands of refugees and women are experiencing around the world. She avoided bureaucratic obstacles and some of her own parents and husbands who forbade the women in their families from sharing these moments of respite.

She did not want to ignore these complex situations, preferring to emphasize the human side of the refugees and show that they also laugh, dream and wait for a better fate.

“The media focus on refugees is usually so tragic because it’s a reality, but also because it sells,” he criticizes, “but when we approached these stories, my father – with whom he worked on this project – and I decided to see through light , because these people have the human capacity to want to overcome, that is something we should not deny them”.

This new approach not only won the documentary acclaim, having already won awards in Toronto, Colorado and Amsterdam, but also created a conversation on the subject in both Western and Eastern countries, including Muslim countries such as the United Arab Emirates. Here he received support from the local foundation The Big Heart, and has already been presented at the Dubai International Film Festival.

“We have to trust each other. On both sides of the world, we must turn to see ourselves as someone who is not so different. People in difficult situations in this part of the world, for example, look down on us because we always seem to want to ‘save’ them with our vision of the world.”

Today, the Mexican decided to embrace this project together with Asmaa, who now lives in France. Her goal is for this work to reach millions of women around the world, supported by associations that want to promote their cause.

“There will be no documentaries at this time. We want this to be seen by as many women, girls as possible. Because we make these films to change realities”.

Alejandra Alcala
“These people (refugees) have a human capacity that they want to overcome, that’s something we shouldn’t deny them.”


Ale, with her baby, presented her documentary at the children’s film festival.

Girls, accompanied by their mothers, were able to talk to the director and the message she wants to convey with her work.

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