Not long ago, the folks at Duolingo — the free, East Liberty-based language learning app used by 200 million people throughout the world — began to notice a pattern in their users.
The most popular language to learn in many places was that country’s native language. In Sweden, it was Swedish. In Miami, it was English.
It didn’t take long to figure out that most of these users were immigrants; some were refugees and had incredible stories of survival and perseverance.
The company sent Pittsburgh-based photographer Justin Merriman to Turkey and Jordan to collect some of these stories. The result is “Something Like Home,” a documentary film about four refugees that debuted Tuesday night at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty. It can now be viewed for free at duolingomovie.com.
“We landed in Turkey because of Noor’s story (last names are excluded for their family’s safety),” says Merriman. “We were so compelled by it. It wasn’t really, in the beginning, about Syria and displaced refugees. It was about people using language to change their lives.”
Fleeing the civil war in Syria, Noor landed in Iraq, which was in some ways even worse. She kept moving, to Dubai and Turkey. Her desire to learn and connect with her new home in Turkey provided a crucial impetus for the film.
“When you can communicate in the language of the country you’re in, you understand their culture, their customs,” says Merriman. “That’s important when you’re living in a community. In the Inuit language, there are 50 ways to say ‘snow.’ Each word is different. We often don’t appreciate what language means to us, because it’s not a necessity for survival.”
As Syria descended into chaos, cars turned into bombs, neighborhoods became battlefronts, friends and family became casualties. Ahmed, a construction engineer, recalls a building he had just built becoming a battlefield, which he had but minutes to flee.
Noor was at the screening at the Kelly-Strayhorn. Visas were impossible for the others, because of their Syrian citizenship. But she had obtained Iraqi citizenship which actually made it slightly easier to get a travel visa.
A software engineer who speaks five languages, Noor had some advice for new language learners.
“Use all of your senses,” she told the sold-out crowd. “You have to listen. You have to speak the words and listen.”
Opportunities for refugees are, of course, vastly different.
One of the refugees profiled, Mahmoud, lives in a refugee camp in Jordan. It’s a grim place, with identical huts lined up to the horizon in a featureless desert.
“You want to think that you find a sense of hope,” says Merriman. “I see it in Mahmoud’s eyes. But it’s hard to look beyond the fact that there are 30,000 people who have been there five to seven years. It’s hard to travel outside the camps. They have so few opportunities to work and benefit their lives in any way.”
Mahmoud, who has lived there for five years, has thrown himself into learning languages — spoken and computer — for an imagined future outside the camp.
“The thing about children the world round — they all are children,” says Merriman. “They laugh, they play, they color in coloring books, play soccer. They often don’t see it for what it really is. The adults see it. They fear what their future may continue to look like. That’s hard. It’s hard to drive through that camp and see so many people who have so little, and that the world has forgotten.”
The film was a transformative experience for Merriman.
“Every time I step outside into the world with my camera, I’m changed. I leave something behind, and take something with me,” he says. “All the people I photographed, I’m still in contact with. They’re like family; I will forever keep track of them and their lives. I hope I gave them an opportunity to speak and know that their stories matter. Not only them, but all the people they represent.”