For three years, documentary filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen followed one Syrian family: Hala, her husband Abu Ali, a commander in the Free Syrian Army, and their four young children: Sara, Farah, Helen and Mohammed. Their story — of violence, escape to safety, and adjusting to a new life in Germany — became the film “Watani: My Homeland,” nominated this year for an Oscar.
Hala was planning to attend the award ceremony later this month, along with a Women in the World Summit for female leaders in Washington, D.C. But since President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, Mettelsiefen said that no longer seems possible, despite Hala’s visa, which is valid until 2019. And now, she’s speaking out.
In a statement given to PBS NewsHour, Hala said she agreed to be filmed so that people could “see the truth and harsh reality” refugees face, and that she felt a duty to use her story and platform to bring attention to the people still trapped in Syria. “Being able to stand up on a world stage and address people worldwide,” as she might have at the Oscars or the Women in the World conference, “is very important in [that] mission,” she said.
In addition to Hala, the executive order that temporarily bans travel from seven countries may also prevent the White Helmets, a Syrian volunteer rescue group that appears in another Oscar-nominated documentary, from attending the ceremony. Meanwhile, an unknown number of foreign nationals who lived and studied in the U.S. for years do not know when and if they will be able to return, and the fate of some 20,000 refugees remains in limbo.
The State Department, which manages the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, referred questions about the order and its impact on refugees to the White House. On Wednesday, in a separate interview with the NewsHour, Vice President Mike Pence defended the executive order more generally as a “pause” so that vetting procedures could be improved.
“President Trump has no higher priority than the safety and security of the American people,” he said, citing the example of the November 2015 terror attack in Paris, where it was initially believed that one of the attackers had a Syrian refugee passport. That passport later turned out to be fake, but intelligence officials have warned that extremists have considered exploiting refugee programs to enter the U.S.
“It’s very sad to see one of the biggest [and] most influential countries in the world close its heart to people,” Hala said. “Refugees are humans first and foremost. They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.”
When the film begins, Hala’s family of six is the only one remaining in a warzone area of Aleppo — and they vow to stay. But when her husband Abu Ali gets captured by ISIS, and the violence continues to escalate around them, Hala must make the difficult decision to leave Syria for the safety of her children. As they arrive in their new home, a small town in Germany called Goslar, Hala gazes out the window and murmurs: “There isn’t a single shelled house.”
In considering the travel ban, Mettelsiefen, who is German but has been traveling to Syria since 2011, said it is important to remember that choosing to leave home is not a decision most refugees want to make. Hala and Abu Ali wanted to stay and fight for Syria, as did their children, despite living amid constant shelling.
“We love you, Syria,” Sara, Hala’s youngest child, says in the film as they leave Aleppo for Germany. “Forgive us.”
In her statement, Hala said, “We don’t become refugees because it’s the easiest thing to do; we become refugees because the only other choice is death.”
But while children can more easily adapt to life in a new country, Mettelsiefen said he has found that is more difficult for parents like Hala.
“While the older generation will physically be there, they will never be able to really leave their homeland,” he said. In her statement, Hala said in leaving Syria means she now has to live with “great sadness and great guilt.”
At a speech in August before the United Nations, Hala warned in stark terms that Aleppo, her beloved hometown, was burning, but the world had stopped paying attention. Aleppo, which is Syria’s largest city, was once a bustling metropolis; now, it’s been largely reduced to rubble.
“My homeland is bleeding profusely and the world is yet to tend to its wounds,” she said.
Hala also told the UN that as the Syrian people called out for help, the world was otherwise fixated on “images of knife-wielding terrorists killing in the name of Islam.”
“Well, not in our name. Not in my name,” she said. The crowd burst into applause.
“She gave this unbelievable speech at the [UN] General Assembly,” said Mettelsiefen, “giving a voice and face to all these refugees… as a strong, female Muslim woman.”
This was important, he said, because it shows a different and more human side to the Arab world than “the endless rows of bearded men chopping off heads” often shown in the media. Mettelsiefen believes the travel ban, which restricts immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, only further feeds that narrative.
“To shape the future by and with hate, fear, and division is very dangerous,” he said. “I’m German, we’ve been there, and it didn’t end well.”
Just four months after Hala’s speech, Aleppo fell to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. And the five-year-long civil war continues. In recent months, little news has gotten out of Syria, which remains the most dangerous country for journalists. But in December, the United Nations voiced concern that more than 100,000 civilians were trapped, and this week media reported cease-fire talks between the government and rebel factions were shaky.
“Syria is still burning, its people are being suffocated,” Hala said in her statement. “Millions of men, women and children are in need of desperate help. Time is running out.”
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