In 2007, I went to Palestine to shoot a documentary project for a charity. Admittedly, I did not know much about the middle east conflict until then. There’s nothing like being in a location and bearing witness to news events that make one realise the gravity and seriousness of what most of us see as headlines and digital images on our phones, tablets and desktops. Seeing really is as they say, believing. I had been to so called ‘developing’ countries before where children wore no shoes and whole families lived on carts and begged on the street. Perhaps it did somewhat prepare me to visit refugee camps and ‘slums’ in Calais, Lebanon and Greece. But part of it didn’t.
It was in Greece that made the most impact. One of the camps where we spent a few days was a camp in Katsikas. A well run camp by a few grassroots charities that was policed by the Greek authorities. They had a makeshift school where overseas volunteers taught maths and English among other things. While there, a few of the young men who were residents were making a flower bed for the school. The overseas volunteers were from all over of all ages, but mostly young people who were also, among young people who escaped the war. There were mostly families and, SO many children. We spoke to a mother of three adorable children about her experience in the camp. At some point she broke down crying telling us how how she worried about her kids not getting enough nutrition and how she wished for something as simple for them as a banana. It broke my heart and was the first time I cried while shooting in the 15 years I had been a Cinematographer.
While walking around later shooting various shots I spoke to a man who told me horrors that he witnessed. A horror story that haunts me till today. The government bombed his home soon after. He escaped and ended up in Greece having to live in a tent, with little rights, no prospects of going home and with a majority of the EU countries turning a blind eye. I met more people who had similar experiences, people who were younger.
Arriving in a new country by escaping ones own, often with PTSD, with just the clothes on your back and hugely diminished rights in the country you arrived in is disorientating and frightening. Those who don’t make it to a camp can wonder into cities. The young, separated from their families, can often be poached, trafficked and exploited. We are witness to the largest forced migration since the second world war and a generation of adults and children who are losing years of their lives because of the supposed lack of means for other countries to sufficiently help them.
There is that saying in England that, ‘We take care of our own’. Does ‘our own’ simply mean people who were lucky enough to be born in a country which hasn’t experienced war in over 70 years, largely due to the formation of the UN and the EU of which it apparently now wants to leave? This 'tribe' people speak of reeks of xenophobia and at worst, superiority. Lebanon’s population is 4.3 million and a quarter are refugees. Syria was one of the founding members of the UN and itself took in refugees after the 2nd world war. Western governments and people have seen a rise in nationalism with the advent of migration, forced or otherwise. How damning has our modern cynicism and apathy treated our fellow humans. In the midst of a rapid modern life, 24hr news cycles and local poverty- we tend to forget that we all belong to the Earth, not the other way around.
Fortunately, there are many of us who want to do our part. I worked and witnessed the people from the grassroots charities* who plough their money directly into helping peoples daily life and building infrastructure in their lives- that make a real difference- it helps people survive and hopefully be able one day, to help themselves, contribute and flourish.
Being the son of an immigrant myself, I have great empathy for those who migrate for a better life and even more so for those who are forced to. I have great respect for those who make a direct difference to their lives and therefore, these are the charities I chose to donate to. I hope one day, there will be no need for these charities.
*For those who wish to know the list of these charities are and what they do, please email me.
** photo: one of the three children of the woman we spoke to at Katsikas.
***The title of this blog entry comes from a line of dialogue in the TV show, The West Wing,
"With the clothes on their backs, they came through a storm. And those that didn't die want a better life, and they want it here. Talk about impressive".
****An excellent commercial from Save The Children that mirrors the life of a child that becomes a refugee: