On Sunday September 27, 2015 I attended my first ever Film Festival. I also sat down to write my first blog post. Having said that, I will have to apologize in advance, I am not a writer. My brother is though, so maybe by virtue of association with him, this won’t be an entirely awful piece.
Before beginning my, hopefully not futile, attempt at blog writing, I would like to recognize and acknowledge the point of privilege I am writing this from. I am a white woman and a Canadian citizen and my lived experiences are vastly different from those featured in the films presented by the Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF). I cannot and do not seek to have this blog piece used as any sort of “authority” or even as a “review” of the film I attended. I am merely writing this from the standpoint of an ally who seeks to share an opinion piece that hopefully critiques the international refugee “system” in a thoughtful manner.
To do this, I must warn, I delve into details of the film I viewed and would like to take the chance now to provide a “reader beware”: spoilers are ahead.
Films, Festivals, and Hope
From TPFF’s website, I learned that it is a volunteer run Festival dedicated to bringing Palestinian cinema, music, culture, cuisine and art to Toronto audiences. However, after having attended only one event, I can see that it is much more than this. It is about community, resiliency, hope and defiance in the face of overwhelming challenges and suffering.
This was made evident when Shirin Haghgou, the programming volunteer for TPFF, opened the screening by quoting the following:
“It is said that resistance is the disease of hope. And as long as our people continue to suffer from this disease, our stories, our music, our poems will continue to be heard.”
Retrospectively, I believe the heart of this quote was intricately woven throughout the film I viewed.
So, what film did I see?
I, along with a friend, went to the screening of “On the Bride’s Side”. It was the closing event for TPFF and it left me with the lingering notion that I truly should have made more of an effort to see as many TPFF films as possible.
The film follows the journey of five Palestinians and Syrians who enlist the help of a Palestinian poet, Khaled Sloman Al Nassiry, and an Italian journalist, Gabriele Del Grande, to get them from Italy to Sweden. “The Five” are Adballah Sallam, Ahmad Abed and Mona Al Ghabra, and Alaa Al-Din Bjermi and MC Manar.
To get “The Five” from Italy to Sweden, Gabriele and Khaled came up with the idea of faking a wedding procession, to decrease the likelihood of being stopped by immigration officials. Tasnim Fared, an activist, volunteered to be the bride, accompanied by many of Gabriele’s Italian friends who volunteered to make up the wedding party.
The film documents actual events that took place in the aftermath of the October 2013 Lampedusa disaster where 250 refugees drowned. Unfortunately, this film is just as relevant today as it was in 2013, with the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis (as well as countless other refugee crises around the globe).
The film beautifully tells the story of the four-day journey that takes the group from Italy to Sweden. However, what was even more profound was the way in which the film navigates through the experiences and life stories of The Five. In this sense, the audience is watching many stories unfold at once. The audience has what can only be described as the privilege of learning of the hopes and dreams of The Five.
Throughout their journey, little by little, The Five begin to share what happened to them, why they are attempting to get to Sweden, and what they want for their futures. It is an intimate telling of a father-son relationship, and the lengths that family will go to ensure the safety of their loved ones. It is a telling of a love that has persisted throughout years of happiness and unimaginable crisis. It’s a telling of a resounding international injustice that carries with it an equally resounding international responsibility, a responsibility that continues to be too easily ignored.
Tasnim Fared is quoted in the film stating that “the sky is for everybody, so is the sea.” Juxtaposed with this sentiment is Mona Al Ghabra lamenting on the ludicrous reality that people are being forced to pay thousands of dollars to drown in the sea. Mona and her husband Ahmad as well as fellow member of “The Five”, Abdallah, were among those left in the bay of Lampedusa to drown.
When recounting this experience to the audience, Ahmad doesn’t speak of the terror he inevitably must have experienced, but the deep hurt that came with the realization that rescue ships only responded after hours of activism put in by the Syrian and refugee community already safely ashore. Had their community not responded as they had, the death toll would have been even higher than the already unimaginable total of 250.
Despite this human betrayal, The Five have a determination and resiliency that does not seem to waiver throughout the film. It is evident they “suffer” from the disease of hope, sharing songs, poetry and stories with each other throughout their journey. Manar, son of Alaa Al-Din, is a young and talented Palestinian rapper, who uplifts those around him with his lyrics and his passion for not only music, but also the role that music can play in achieving justice.
While the film’s focus is clearly on The Five, we also get a glimpse into the lives of Gabriele and Khaled. Both are risking penal sentences if discovered “smuggling” refugees across European borders. Gabriele, having reported in Syria, knows that the risks associated with this are worth it.
Khaled and his family live in Italy and, on the day he begins his journey to Sweden, he learns that his family has finally been granted Italian citizenship. His joy emanates off the screen. It is the first time in his family’s life that any of them have ever been citizens of a country. After leading stateless lives for so long and living with the precarious realities of that, he is even more inspired to assist his companions in their journey, despite the stakes having been raised even higher with the granting of his citizenship.
As Palestinians, Manar and his father also know of the realities of being “stateless”. Upon arriving to Italy, Alaa Al-Din is forced to allow Italian immigration officials to take his fingerprints. Throughout their journey to Sweden, Alaa Al-Din is distraught with worry. In the European Union there is a general principle that you are to claim refugee status where you enter. Sweden is almost never the first place of entry, though it is the desired destination for claiming status. If immigration officials of another country have already obtained your fingerprints, chances of being deported back to that country are high.
The audience let out a collective sigh of despair when the ending credits rolled and disclosed to us that Manar and his father had been deported back to Italy.
While this is an issue that is particularly amplified in the European Union, given its geography and close relation to countries currently impacted by civil war and other disasters, it is also an issue present in North America. On December 29, 2004 Canada and the United States’ “Safe Third Country Agreement,” (The Agreement) came into effect. This has largely the same impact on refugee claimants as the European policy has had on Manar and his father.
While this may seem like a peculiar statement to make, given that Canada and the US are typically conceptualized as “safe” countries, The Agreement has had deadly and “indirect” impacts on refugee claimants. Similarly to Alaa Al-Din’s fingerprints being taken by Italian officials upon arrival to Italy, refugee claimants are expected to request protection from the first “safe third country” they enter.
A “third country” is identified as a country a refugee claimant passes through en route to their final destination. The Agreement has defined both the US and Canada as “safe” countries and has essentially bureaucratized a formal process of deflection. Refugee claimants who first land in the US and then attempt to move through the Canadian border to make their claim are “deflected” back to the US and vice-versa.
This agreement was largely negotiated as part of a number of post-United States’ 9/11 measures known by the title “Smart Border Action Plan”, and has been the subject of controversy since it’s coming into force.
It has been argued by refugees and allies, such as the Canadian Council of Refugees, that the Agreement results in the indirect refoulement of bona fide refugees on part of Canada, through the US. The international principle of non-refoulement establishes that no state can deport a refugee to a territory where their life or freedom would be threatened by persecution (on any of the grounds set out in Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention), it also makes clear that in these situations, states shall not impose penalties on account of refugees’ “illegal” entry or presence.
The indirect refoulement produced from the Agreement comes as a result of inconsistencies in the two state’s refugee laws and policies, with the US providing a significantly diminished level of procedural and substantive protection.
The Agreement functions on the understanding that “true” asylum seekers would apply for protection in the first country of arrival, rather than “shopping” around for the most desired country. This logic ignores the very necessary reasons for an asylum seeker to choose a country for refuge that may not be the first country of arrival. For example, Arab Muslim men entering the US after 9/11 faced (and continue to face) a very real threat to their security of person in the form of “preventative detention” as well as disproportionate concerns of having their claim denied. Furthermore, the reasoning could be as simple as family reunification.
With the widespread and increasing use of detainment, as well as increased securitization of borders, deflecting asylum seekers back to where they may be detained, or at worst refouled, it is not surprising that refugees may take matters into their own hands and increasingly resort to “illegal” methods of entry and/or go “underground” for as long as possible.
Despite both the US and Canada being parties to the 2000 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, the Agreement is likely to lead to an increase in trafficking. As the borders and sanctions become stricter, the price of smuggling risks rising and eventually leading to migrants and refugee claimants resorting to more and more exploitative means of gaining access to transportation and entry. This itself increases the level of exploitation, precariousness and vulnerability of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers while simultaneously barring them from the protections they would otherwise have received as a “legal migrant” under migration laws, or as a “real” refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Despite this having been explained in a Canadian context, it is equally applicable to the refugee crises that are occurring globally. While The Five were eventually fortunate enough to find Gabriele and Khaled, many refugee claimants are not so lucky.
The tightening of borders coupled with the general lack of response from the international community has increased negative connotations of refugees and resulted in people resorting to desperate measures to attempt to find asylum. This has been proved to result in disaster time and time again, look to the 2013 Lampedusa disaster, the death of Aylan Kurdi, and the 2014 disaster where almost 700 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea.
While The Five are now safe, some settled in Sweden, others on their way to Germany, most reunited with families, their journeys can’t truly be said to end until they have the choice of returning to their homes, if they wish.
Conclusion: Where do we go from here?
What can we do?
Gabriele Del Grande Skyped in to TPFF after the viewing of his film, and this was a question he faced by the audience. To him, the answer is simple: instead of funneling money to the increased securitization of borders and detainment of people seeking asylum, the international community needs to focus on directing funds to streamlining immigration systems. Making it easier for people to gain visas and to claim refugee status while simultaneously de-criminalizing the process needs to formulate the focal point of this movement.
While this may be a hopeful, or even idealistic solution, it seeks to tackle the systemic issues with current refugee and immigration processes around the globe. It’s not a solution that will happen over night, but is something that is achievable if the international community begins to step up to the plate.
So what role do we play?
Most importantly, we need to be vocal. If attending protests isn’t your thing, write a letter to your local government or MP. As cliché as it sounds, public pressure works. In Iceland, the government was forced into creating a refugee action committee after massive public outcry resulted from the government’s pledge to accept only 50 refugees from Syria. For more long-term change, the public needs to be loud on what they wish to achieve. It will take changes to domestic legal systems before any international change will be seen.
For more short-term, direct responses, there are various ways of taking action. While sponsoring a family may not be feasible, donations of any sort can help. This can be directed to specific families, or to organizations that are themselves dedicated to sponsoring families or supporting refugees in Canada. Similarly, you could donate directly to aid organizations working on the “front lines” of the crises. For students, many Canadian universities are now setting pledges to assist in the current Syrian refugee crisis, stemming from collecting donations to sponsoring families.
For more systemic involvement, you could get involved with organizations that have broader mandates that intersect with issues pertaining to refugees. For example, you could join the Canadian Council for Refugees or involve yourself with local organizations that assist refugees with settling or are engaged in preventative work.
You could reach out to grassroots organizations in refugee communities who are already in Canada, ask them how you can best assist them, what do they need? What are their immediate concerns that need to be met?
While these are merely a handful of suggestions, most directed at the short-term, they are at the very least a way for people to get involved in some manner. They are for those who want to help in making the land safer for all, and for those who have begun to acknowledge the words of Warsan Shire, “you have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Women’s Film Collective Researcher and Writer
Sydney holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Rights from Carleton University and is currently studying law at Osgoode Hall Law School at York university, Toronto.
Currently, she is part of a team conducting research for a documentary film looking into the Canadian Criminal Justice System’s handling of gender based crimes.
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