Monday, 18 May 2015


“Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” - Victor Hugo

To be forced to flee from one’s home and country for one or another reason must be one of the most traumatic experiences that one can live through. The life of a refugee is fraught with dangers, hardships, risks, an uncertain future and often of course, brevity - as death stalks the refugee on many fronts (I still remember with horror the 58 Chinese refugees who were found suffocated in a container in Dover). Throughout the world, the number of refugees is escalating and the reasons why they are forced to leave their homes are many and varied: Political persecution, religious intolerance, social problems, economic reasons, war, terrorism, famine, natural disasters…

A refugee is so-called because he or she is seeking refuge or asylum. Protection from the dangers that threaten their existence in their native lands and the chance to live a peaceful, safe existence. The 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees defined a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country.” This definition was expanded in 1967 to include “persons who had fled war or other violence in their home country”.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants gives the current world total of refugees as approximately 12 million and estimates there are over 34 million displaced by war, including internally displaced persons, who remain within the same national borders. The majority of refugees who leave their country seek asylum in countries neighbouring their country of nationality.

This topic is dear to my heart as my family and I were forced to leave our homeland (Greece) in late 1969 and we had to come to live in Australia, because of political reasons. We were opposed to the military junta of Greece at the time, and as my parents were involved in anti-dictatorship activities it came to the point of risking capture and being jailed or fleeing. We were lucky to be accepted for immigration into Australia, with some fortunate and timely intervention by relatives and friends.

The film we watched last weekend struck a chord with me, even thought the circumstances of the refugees shown were different. The film is In This World (2002) and is directed by Michael Winterbottom. It is made in the style of a documentary, but although the story is inspired by actual events, it is a dramatised account. It is the story of two cousins, Enayat and Jamal, who are Afghan refugees. They live in a camp in Peshawar in Pakistan and try to escape to Great Britain using the help of people smugglers. Their dangerous journey leads them along the ancient “Silk Road” through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey towards London.

It is shot on DV and considering the medium, the cinematography is great, with some of the night shots in the mountains of border of Turkey, very dark, grainy and indistinct, creating a tension and atmosphere of fear that would have been difficult to portray with well-shot film.  The film does not politicise, nor does it preach. It is a fairly dispassionate account told without guile and one feels drawn into the plight of the characters, even though characterisation is minimal. On their odyssey, the two boys have to contend with border guards, police, thieves, smugglers, and numerous changes in currency and language. The vision of London is that of a paradise that beckons them and it is this dream-like Cockaigne that sustains them during their arduous trip. The film makes us identify with the main characters because it establishes very quickly their humanity, which we share.

The film, however, is making an important political statement. It forces us to take a stand in the end, forces us to take sides and have an opinion. How to deal with this world-wide problem, how to heal the social and political cancers in those countries that force their populations to flee? How to prevent exploitation of the weak and needy by the rich and powerful and how to prevent human tragedies from recurring? This is a powerful film, sad but oddly hopeful at the same time. Young Jamal reminded me of a stray seed carried by the wind and landing on a rocky infertile mountain. He battles with the elements in order to germinate and grow, but the adversity makes this young stunted plant strong and resistant to the unfavourable environment. What does not destroy him, makes him stronger…

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