Upcoming documentary screening continues the refugee conversation on Grounds

Batten’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship wields the power of documentaries to expose valuable refugee experiences

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U.Va. to screen two documentaries on the refugee experience.

Courtesy One Journey Festival

In a turbulent and ever-changing news cycle, it is important not to lose track of systemic humanitarian issues like the global refugee crisis. Beyond government shutdowns, national political turmoil and other foreign developments, refugees from Syria, Venezuela, Somalia and many other nations still need accommodations and a platform on which to build their lives.

The One Journey Festival, an organization founded in 2017 by refugees of the 1991 Croatian civil war, seeks to help displaced people by celebrating diversity and combating the “growing nativism and apathy towards a humanitarian crisis of historic scale,” according to the organization’s website. 

The University’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy will host One Journey Festival in Garrett Hall Feb. 28, as they screen “4.1 Miles” and “From Damascus to Chicago”, two acclaimed documentaries portraying the current refugee crisis from vastly different viewpoints. The screening is the third in a series at the University meant to combat negative associations with refugees.

“4.1 Miles”, directed by Daphne Matziaraki and distributed by the New York Times, is a 20 minute documentary covering Coast Guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who saves incoming refugees from drowning off the coast of a small Greek island. The film was nominated for “Best Documentary Short Subject” during the 2017 Academy Awards for its potent and immersive perspective focusing on a day in the life of a volunteering hero. In being set abroad it showcases obstacles and traumas that refugees can face in the process of fleeing their war-torn countries.

The second film to be shown, “From Damascus to Chicago”, is directed by Colleen Cassingham and Alex Lederman and runs only 12 minutes long. It revolves around a Syrian refugee family adjusting to city life in Chicago, focusing around a dance class the daughters enroll in to establish the difficult but rewarding process of adapting to a new life while being forced to flee from an old one. The film is relatable to Charlottesville’s role as a new home for refugees. Jack DiMatteo, a student organizer and Batten Master of Public Policy candidate, believes it “will show our common humanity and give us hope that when we welcome in the world's most vulnerable people, we can all thrive together.”

After the short films, a panel of experts — comprised of Tim Cunningham, director of The Compassionate Care Initiative at U.Va/, Batten Alumnus Matt Tully and Farah Ibrahim, a Charlottesville-area refugee from Iraq — will share refugee stories and discuss the challenges and roles communities can play in helping them integrate into new communities. Charlottesville, according to 2017 statistics from the local International Rescue Committee, is itself home to 3,500 refugees from over 32 counties. DiMatteo hopes the broad range of experiences presented by the panelists will provoke “a sense of urgency to get involved” within the University community.

“I think it's really important for humanitarian organizations, human rights organizations, concerned citizens [and] universities to keep reminding … the public of the facts ... for decades we've been welcoming and receiving and accepting tens of thousands of refugees,” said Batten professor Christine Mahoney, the moderator of the upcoming panel and author of “Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced” in an interview with Arts and Entertainment. “We've incorporated them into our economy. They've made our communities richer ... culturally richer and economically richer.”

Humanitarian issues need to be addressed in a new way, according to Mahoney, who suggests that traditional methods of relief are “all about providing temporary lifesaving food and medicine, which has failed when we are looking at 10, 20 and 30 year crises.” For understanding how to resolve these issues on a longer term scale, Mahoney and others at Batten hope to use impact investing and social entrepreneurship methods that can allow refugees to “permanently rebuild their lives.”

The screenings Mahoney hopes, will also reinforce the vast and often underappreciated differences between how governments handle refugees in Europe versus the United States. 

“You have a situation like Europe where, because it's physically contiguous to areas that are having conflict, people can more easily get there on foot or by boat as you've seen in the news. And so there you have people flooding in … and in the in-between they're not allowed to work at all, “ Mahoney said.

The situation abroad contrasts heavily with the one in the US, where Mahoney says, “Once refugees come here, they've already been vetted usually for years.” According to her, thorough vetting processes, enforced by the Department of Homeland Security, ensure that refugees in the US do not pose a threat .

Once vetted, Mahoney says that the process of integration and entering into the labor market is quick. “They get partnered through these dense networks of support NGOs [non-governmental organizations] all across the United States that help them get integrated into their communities, as happens here in Charlottesville.”

While mainstream news highlights refugee tension, Mahoney’s experience suggests a vastly different picture of peaceful integration in Charlottesville. 

“I have friends who have kids in the public school system — and their children love the fact that they have these really diverse classrooms right like they can learn about different religions and different foods and different cultures from all around the world,” said Mahoney. “It creates essentially a more cosmopolitan feel in Charlottesville than we would have otherwise, and I think a lot of people appreciate that.”

The panel will complement the documentaries through telling more positive, misconception-combatting refugee stories. 

“We see refugees be some of the most committed American citizens, voting every year because they're really excited about starting over and starting over in a place where they have freedoms,” said Mahoney. “So I think that is the story that I'm excited to to hear some of the panelists talk about and to see in the [films] and to share from my own research.”

Films like “4.1 Miles” and “From Damascus to Chicago” and the conversation surrounding them provide a way for U.Va. students to connect and empathize with experiences unimaginable from their own limited perspectives.

“If you've grown up in Charlottesville for example, and you go to U.Va, it’s really hard to imagine what it's like to flee for your life from Syria and be on a boat with human traffickers trying to save your children,” said Mahoney. 

Recent University projects, like 2017 Architecture graduate Atthar Mirzha’s “Impossible Courage”— a virtual reality simulation of the experience of North African asylum seekers, demonstrate a willingness among students to connect directly with the victims of systemic and global issues that have yet to be solved. 

“Different U.Va. student groups and different schools are trying to continue to organize events that that allow that to happen,” said Mahoney. 

Third year College student Anya Karaman, a volunteer with the IRC in Charlottesville and organizer of the event, believes that the format of film will be a powerful draw even for those not in tune with the refugee conversation. 

“I think people — especially at U.Va. — are really in tune with media,” she said. “I think people will want to come out and at the very least watch a film screening even if they don't intend on learning the issue.”

“4.1 Miles” and “From Damascus to Chicago” will be screened in Garrett Hall on Feb 28. Tickets are free with registration through eventbrite.com.

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