Two years ago, Sally Nellson Barrett was working on a documentary about students who live in poverty when a Crete Public Schools preschool teacher told her just 5 percent of the students in her class spoke English fluently.

“That was just a stopper for me,” said Nellson Barrett, a director with Nebraska Loves Public Schools, a nonprofit organization backed by the Sherwood Foundation that supports public schools through film. “Here was a population and a challenge in a school I had no idea about.”

That led Nellson Barrett and her crew on a two-year journey to make the 35-minute documentary “Seeds of Hope,” which premiered in Omaha Wednesday and will be shown Thursday at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

The project took them into the classrooms of Lincoln, Omaha, Schuyler and Chadron schools and ultimately to poverty-stricken areas near Cancun, Mexico, and parts of Malaysia, where refugees are living in limbo.

They met all of the bilingual liaisons at Lincoln Public Schools, asked them to tell their stories, and Oscar Rios Pohirieth, who coordinates the liaison program for LPS, arranged for filmmakers to visit the area of Mexico where his brother lives.

“(Rios) became a very close consultant on this story and layer by layer he peeled back this story,” Nellson Barrett said.

They visited a Seventh-day Adventist school in Mexico that offered a rigorous education but was often inaccessible to students who didn’t have 75 cents for the bus to get there. They visited another school that operates three hours a day, a place where the principal hoped students would learn to read by the sixth grade.

They interviewed officials in Washington to better understand immigration and refugee policies, and visited two refugee schools in Malaysia, heard stories of families who fled horrible violence in their countries and now were in limbo waiting for the opportunity to apply for resettlement, Nellson Barrett said. The refugees can only attend schools organized by the refugees themselves or organizations supporting them and they can't work in Malaysia legally, or attend college.

“They’re trapped,” she said. “Like rats in a maze, there is no 'out' door for them. They can’t go home, and once they get their (documentation) they can apply for resettlement -- but that’s not very likely -- and they can’t go on to college.”

The filmmakers interviewed agencies in Nebraska that help immigrants and refugees and the students themselves -- a population that’s increased 113 percent in the state’s schools since 2000. And the documentary shines a light on the educators who help them learn English and adapt to life in a new country and a new culture.

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“’Seeds of Hope’ is really about how our schools are so welcoming and do whatever they can to help immigrants and refugees find success,” Nellson Barrett said. “If only (viewers) can see what we’ve seen and hear what we’ve heard, maybe they’ll have a little more empathy.”

The documentary is part of a bigger series, “For a Better Life,” that includes more than 20 micro-documentaries -- under 3 minutes in length -- touching on various topics related to immigrants and refugees in the state. 

“I think we have an opportunity and a responsibility to give voice to people who don’t have one,” Nellson Barrett said. “Sometimes that’s refugees and immigrants but more and more it’s teachers and administrators and kids.”

The release of the latest film -- amid heated debate on immigration policy -- came at a perfect time, Nellson Barrett said.

If the film opens people’s eyes to the complexities and stories of those living them, it will be a success, she said.

“If they decide to sponsor a family, then I think we had a home run.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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