To commemorate World Refugee Day in June, POV partners in 11 states across the country hosted more than 20 advance screenings of our films exploring diverse perspectives on the war in Syria and global refugee crisis. Two June 20th screenings in New York City and Los Angeles featured panels with filmmakers, film subjects, and experts on the refugee crisis. Read more about these events below:
In Los Angeles, POV co-hosted a sneak preview screening of Dalya’s Other Country with the Independent Documentary Association and the Skirball Cultural Center. California has one of the largest populations of Syrian refugees in the country, and the response from Los Angeles was overwhelming: over 250 people turned out to the Tuesday night screening. Prior to the screening, attendees explored a special exhibition called “Future Aleppo,” a model of the city. The installation was created by a 12 year-old Syrian refugee as a vision of hope for rebuilding Aleppo. To honor of attendees who were observing Ramadan, after the film, audience members were invited to break bread at an Iftar, the traditional fast-breaking meal. The evening continued with a screening of an excerpt from the Oscar-nominated file 4.1 Miles, followed by a post-screening conversation. The panel featured Dalya’s Other Country co-producer Mustafa Rony Zeno; film subject, Dalya Zeno; Daphne Matziaraki, director of 4.1 Miles; and the Skirball Center’s “Future Aleppo” curator, Cate Thurston. Simon Kilmurry, Executive Director of the International Documentary Association, moderated the discussion.
Meanwhile, in New York, POV partnered with the New York Times Op-Docs team to host an evening of films and discussion on the Syrian war and global refugee crisis. At Manhattan Center Productions’ TV-1 studio, attendees viewed clips from the POV films Dalya’s Other Country, The War Show, 4.1 Miles, and Last Men in Aleppo, followed by a panel discussion with Julia Meltzer; director of Dalya’s Other Country, Jennifer Patterson, deputy executive director at USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency; and Alaa Hassan, producer of The War Show. The panel was moderated by Michael Slackman, international editor for the New York Times.
To open the discussion, Slackman spoke about the capacity of documentary to help us maintain a sense of urgency about the Syrian crisis—a humanitarian disaster that, despite its “truly epic” scale, often seems remote. “It feels something like the world has grown weary talking about refugees,” he remarked. “No matter that more people have been displaced than at anytime in recent history.” Despite our day-to-day passivity, there are moments when an image or a film clip has grabs us by the shoulders and demands action. A photo of a drowned child washed up on a beach, tiny sneakers still on his feet. A child whose parents loved him, and who could belong to any of us. “That is when the world seems to focus,” Slackman said. “These are real people, living real lives, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping each day is better than the next.”
The theme of how to humanize refugees resonated with all the panelists. Julia Meltzer, director of Dalya’s Other Country, emphasized that a crisis like the Syrian war “could happen anywhere.” Although westerners often think of the Middle East as an impossibly violent region where war has become the norm, many Syrian refugees were “regular, middle-class, educated people” before the war began. One of Meltzer’s aims was to show Dalya as a normal teenager who experienced the same anxieties, pressures, and identity questions as a typical American girl; through Dalya, Western viewers can see that the victims of the Syrian crisis are more similar to us than different. At the same time, Dalya’s Other Country is a story of a mother and daughter navigating their dual identities as both Americans and as Muslims. Meltzer pointed out that Dalya was more eager than her mother to publicly celebrate her Muslim identity, She attended Holy Family, a Los Angeles high school “full of immigrants,” and was encouraged to represent her heritage proudly. Rudayna, on the other hand, had more experience with persecution: she was cautious and often apprehensive, even hiding her hijab in fear of the Islamophobic attacks that spiked during Donald Trump’s election campaign.
Jennifer Patterson of USA for UNHCR, an independent NGO that supports UN Human Rights Commission’s work resettling refugees, said that Americans only became aware of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, years after the carnage had begun. In the fall of that year, there was an “outpouring of support” for Syrians, as previously disengaged Americans began to donate money through social media campaigns and Kickstarter. Still, Patterson noted, the UNHCR has referred less than one percent of the 65.6 million refugees registered worldwide for resettlement in United States. And contrary to popular perceptions about a flood of Muslim refugees, the majority of Syrians resettled in the U.S. are Christians. European countries such as Germany and Norway, as well as Canada, pull more than their weight in accepting refugees.
Alaa Hassan, producer of The War Show and a Syrian emigré himself, argued that Americans’ interest in helping refugees has been both short-lived and misguided. He said that Syrians have felt abandoned by the international community. People wanted to help in the aftermath of high-profile violence, but aid efforts failed to address the geopolitical root causes of the Syrian war.
Patterson and Hassan addressed the misconception that most refugees dream of emigrating to the United States. In fact, most want desperately to stay in their home countries, and seek asylum in any country where they’ll be safe. While most refugees intend to stay in their host countries only temporarily until it is safe to return, Patterson said, some spend up to 20 years abroad, due to continuing instability and violence in their home countries.
When an audience member asked what we can do to support Syrians, Hassan spoke from his own experience in the United States. “Refugees don’t want you to pity them.” Like most Americans, refugees want work and education, not charity (although donations can be vital in times of crisis). The best we can do is form real relationships with refugees, and help them integrate into their host societies. Remember that many refugees were highly skilled professionals in their home countries: help them find ways to use their talents to contribute to their new communities.
As for donations, Hassan said, donate to small grassroots organizations, not governments or large NGOs. This will ensure that the money actually helps people in need, rather than getting funneled into bureaucratic costs.
Finally, in this era of “fake news” and media manipulation, we can help the Syrians’ cause by calling out falsehoods and disseminating accurate information. The Syrian regime uses a sophisticated propaganda campaign as a weapon of war. We must be vigilant for misinformation and seek out credible news sources, helping spread these sources within our network. Documentarians like Hassan and Meltzer play a vital role in society. They help spread the truth across borders—both factual and emotional. By viewing their films, people around the world come to see the Syrian crisis as a human story, and are galvanized to take action. “Our job is to tell stories,” said Hassan. “We want the world to know so we don’t have the same experience in the future, anywhere in the world.”