Exiled, Refugees and Me: Not our Department?
“I feel safer here as a foreigner than as a citizen in my own country.”
To refugees fleeing war and persecution at home, this expression is tragically obvious. But what is less commonly understood is that this applies just as accurately to people whose home countries are not at war or otherwise in circumstances where impending death is likely. It’s a reality for many seemingly ordinary individuals I would come to learn about, who – through self-imposed exile – have found a home in Berlin.
It’s a quote that echoes the sentiments of many activists, artists, documentarians, journalists, and critical thinkers who have left their country and found refuge in the German capital. For two seemingly disparate groups, their lives intimately intersect in ways rarely imagined. At a micro level, the journey of a Syrian fleeing war contrasts with those who find themselves in self-imposed exile; in the former case, finding shelter, food and other basic necessities are a constant, daily struggle. On a macro level, they are in on the same search common to all of humanity: to find peace, dignity and freedom.
I arrived in Berlin just as Germany announced its new open-door policy regarding the massive influx of refugees flooding its borders, mostly from Syria but also from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries plagued by war. Europe’s migrant crisis had exploded onto the international media scene in the summer of 2015, and by extension, into the world’s collective consciousness. As other European countries struggled to grapple with the largest mass migration since World War II, Berlin’s policy shift offered a stunning contrast, a glimmer of hope and humanity amidst bursts of xenophobia and fear-mongering. All of a sudden, Germany became the face of compassion and humility; its willkommenskultur – welcome culture – garnered instant international media attention and praise, and its overall response to the crisis, despite many troubling aspects, eventually earned its chancellor, Angela Merkel, the spot of Time’s Person of the Year. The number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany surged each month that summer, from 83,000 arrivals in July to 181,000 in October alone.
It is against this backdrop in which I found myself in Lichtblick Kino, a tiny arthouse cinema on Kastanienallee, one of Prenzlaur Berg’s trendiest streets. It was a breezy Monday evening in September, signs of the end of a sweltering summer. People poured in slowly from work and nearby bars, an eclectic mix – mostly English speaking – for the screening of Silvered Water, the first of the three part Exiled Politics Film Festival. In a room that resembles a shack, this cosy arthouse has become a hub for indie films and documentaries that highlight otherwise untold stories of the local to the global, stories that are personal and transcend the personal. On this night, it did all of those. Silvered Water felt like anything but a documentary. We were pre-warned that it was going to be an uncomfortable, often brutal, viewing experience. The organisers at Lichtblick had achieved something to be proud of: the film had premiered in Cannes 2014 to wide acclaim, dubbed as the ‘miracle film’ by Le Monde; yet it could not find a German distributor due to the ‘harshness’ of its images. But, it was set to premiere for the first time in Germany that night, and its producer, Orwa Nyrabia, himself an exiled Syrian living in Berlin, was on scene with all 30 something of us, huddled in a room at overcapacity.
Few films linger on as viscerally and insistently in one’s mind as Silvered Water does. As I lumped into my seat on the edge of the second row in the dark and gritty room so characteristic of Berlin, I heard and felt frequent bouts of “ughs” and hand gestures of people covering their eyes throughout the film. The crudeness and brutality of some of the images that confronted us on screen proved to be too much. Scenes of torture, imprisonment, crying babies, blood, explosions and protests captured on mobile phones meshed with moments of tenderness; a little boy picking a flower as an expression of hope and peace instead of hatred and revenge over his father’s death; the strength of grieving mothers; the vulnerability, fear, and bravery of Simav Bedirxan, a Syrian-Kurdish teacher who became the co-narrator of the film.
The film was a product of three years of remote filmmaking by exiled Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed, depicting the plight of Syrians living in their besieged cities. Mohammed was in France attending a panel discussion on dictatorial filmmaking in May 2011 when he was tipped off by a friend back home that it would be unsafe for him to return. Maybe in retrospect it shouldn’t have been that surprising; by then, Mohammed had been a defiant filmmaker under the dictatorial rule of Assad for four decades, and conditions weren’t getting better. But, with a return ticket in hand, the news was nothing short of grave and dramatically unexpected. Forced into Paris exile, he continued his defiant filmmaking, this time remotely. Owing to the guilt he felt from having left everything behind and a conviction to pay homage to his people, he trawled the internet to find every video possible that was uploaded by Syrians, mostly on Youtube. The result is a film made up of a collection of footage filmed exclusively by mostly anonymous, ordinary Syrians, a total of 1001 of them, living out the brutality of hell. It’s a tribute to every inch of the humanity, imagination, hope, courage, and resilience of these people that could be documented. It was unusual material- these bits of raw footage are pixelated, fragmented, blurry, and at times undiscernible. Yet, it is exactly this “low quality” feature that came to be the essence of the film, that enriched the storytelling, and in which its artistic value was found. They tell a story of the emotions behind the lens in all its uncensored poignancy. As a function of Mohammod’s unyielding faith to see beauty out of tragedy, it reached into the horrors of a dystopian reality and found light within it. More than anything, it gave a face, a voice to Syrians more than any news outlet could. It doesn’t pretend to tell THE Syrian story; instead, it opened a space for a narrative eliminated not only by its own regime but by the rest of the world’s.
At the end of the film, with an audience both audibly moved and disturbed in equal measure, Orwa went on stage to share his thoughts through an impromptu q and a. The issue of the crudeness of some of the images inevitably came up, and without an ounce of bitterness or superiority in his voice, he said frankly,
“If you can’t sleep tonight, you can’t sleep. So what? I spent many sleepless nights during the making of this film. It’s hard to watch, of course, but necessary. It should be hard. What makes us so different, so privileged, that we should look away? What makes those of us sitting right here in this room, right now, so different to those Syrians you just saw?”
The audience sat stunned. Not by the audacity of his words but by the truth and sincerity with which he said it. This was the first time I had heard someone speak of our privilege in such a way. His words rang deafly true. Why should we be so protected, conditioned, coddled? Why should we sit so comfortably ensconced in our very lovely lounge chairs, pretending to look away just because we can afford to be precious?
It reminded me of a quote by Andrew Boyd:
“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.”
This is not a call to purposely expose yourself to traumatic experiences for the sake of it. It’s to ask for a bit of mutual aid and solidarity. Too often, refugee and asylum issues are treated as issues of charity, a mainstream paradigm that is no longer viable. It’s only when we start to see and understand the marginalized or displaced as people rather than as an abstraction can we expand our compassion and awareness of what’s possible. The notion that it’s not your department is nonsense. It’s all of our departments. You get to make a choice. To me, that is the glass ceiling of our generation: to break the fear, ignorance and apathy that underlie societal divides.
Everyone, even the most optimistic of us, succumb to the sense of defeatism and resignation from time to time when faced with all that is wrong in the world. But the stories of Silvered Water are a reminder that it is only a matter of asking yourself, ‘what agency do I have?’, and to figure out where you fit in the common terrain of struggle. No one told these 1001 Syrians to film or what to film; it was solely a product of their own search for agency and personal freedom. It’s a testament to the truth that even in the darkest of corners and under the harshest duress, agency and choice can still exist if there is courage and conviction. And it can transpire into something potent. It can be an experiment or it can be revolutionary, and both are equally worthy. The point is we do have agency, and sometimes we make the choice not to use it. And I respect that, we have that choice, and I’m glad that it’s a choice. But we should recognize that when we choose not to do things, or when we look the other way because of petty reasons such as losing sleep, or because we don’t identify with some aspects of these ‘other’ people, we become the problem. There is a kind of culpability. Bravery is not an absence of fear, it is continuing to do things even when we are afraid, because it is right. By practicing mutual aid and solidarity, we can move towards a world where we act, not just react.
This chord would struck me again just a few weeks later at a refugee dinner organized by Give Something Back to Berlin. A fellow volunteer asked me how long I had been in Germany.
“About four weeks,” I said.
“Oh, so you’re same as them. Except you’re legal.”
By them, she meant the four teenage boys who had arrived in Germany after a torturous journey from Afghanistan just four weeks prior. They were frolicking playfully with each other as they helped prepare dinner in the kitchen, as much as teenage boys can. Within minutes, one of them ran up to me and started eagerly speaking in fragmented German, asking about me and where I was from. They had already began their process of assimilation; learning Deutsch. At that point, I was two weeks into my German course and could just piece together the most basic of introductions. We were bonded by an unexpected language – the only one – that we had in common. A mutual tingle of pride bestowed upon us as we tried to communicate in German, however amateur and broken it was. What I found in the ensuing evening of chaos, conversations, and laughter over the course of dinner was that this divergent “Refugees and Me” posturing didn’t exist; instead, there was simply “us”.
Cover a still from Silvered Waters