By Marguerite Jill Dye
Have you ever felt unsafe in your own home? Can you imagine risking your own and your children’s lives to flee from your country to save your lives? Never underestimate the power of two women on a mission. When a courageous young woman from Albany, N.Y., met Sham, a “fierce” mother of two from Syria, Amanda Bailey had an idea: to show her friend’s strength and resolve and accompany the family on their perilous flight. Through film, she could show and tell their story of their exodus from Syria. Bailly had worked as a producer for Human Rights Watch in New York and had studied journalism, Middle East history, and Arabic at Boston University. She checked out filmmaking tutorials on the internet for a couple of weeks, bought a small Sony camera with night vision, and, three days later, left for Greece to meet her friend and begin filming her first feature-length documentary film. “8 Borders, 8 Days” took us along on the terrifying journey on its World Refugee Day screening in Rutland’s Paramount Theatre on June 20.
Sham, a university professor of Arabic, and her two children waited for 15 months to be accepted to resettle in the U.S. and were never notified of the embassy’s closure. Their danger at home was so great that they set out on a death-defying raft trip to Greece and an eight-day-and-night journey from the Middle East to Germany. Their goal was to find refuge and safe haven in a compassionate nation so they might begin their lives once again.
As soon as Bailly received Sham’s call that she and her two children were leaving Syria, that very night she flew to Greece. With nothing more than their identification papers, the clothes they were wearing, and her life savings, Sham and her children boarded an inflatable yellow raft packed with desperate Syrian families, mostly children. The journey around the Turkish coast in a tumultuous sea led them just northwest of Izmir, to the Greek island of Lesbos. The raft nearly sank in the darkness just off the coast, but life jackets kept them afloat. Syrian men waiting on the beach helped everyone get to shore. Bailey arrived there just in time to film their landing, but the Greek police deleted the footage. Fortunately, they returned the camera to her. Dawn lit up the colorful vests, scattered across the sand and heaped in a pile like a bonfire. Once reunited with her friend, Sham’s daughter Lulu (8) and son Eylan (10) recounted their exciting and perilous night crossing to Bailly, on camera, and revealed that none of them could swim. Their composure and healthy attitude was a testimony to their mother’s strength.
As “8 Borders, 8 Days” began, we were immediately drawn in. Together, the foursome (with the audience in tow) set out on their journey across land.
They walked in hot sun and through cold rain wearing trash bags for protection. They followed hidden paths and railroad tracks amid a continuous stream of asylum seekers. They were hungry and thirsty most of the way, and when permitted to enter, bought provisions in corner shops or cafés. Once in a while a car would pull up to hand out water or something to eat. In a couple of places, on a rare night, pup tents were set up for few hours’ sleep. Some countries offered bus or train service to the next town or national border, but most of the borders were dangerous to cross, like the bridge into Serbia, where militia awaited and pushed the crowds back and blocked their way. When a few women and children were expelled from the crowd, they emerged, one by one, terrified and sobbing. One woman stood shaking, stiff and in shock, even as her man carried her away.
While passing through a corn field on the Hungarian border, a man’s brother, safe in Sweden, guided the group along the route by cell phone to avoid detection by the border police, who were gathered around a fire. The fear of the refugees was palpable as we sat on the edge of our seats, holding our breath, afraid for their next encounter.
In the end, they arrived in Germany and were taken by train to Berlin. There they remain in a refugee resettlement highrise, one of three. In 2015, Germany took in 1 millionrefugees. Although the children are now attending school, Sham is not allowed to work yet and there is little integration into the greater community.
It is ironic that our nation, which has accepted only 2,000 Syrian refugees since the fighting began, has more programs to help and resettle the new arrivals than it has refugees. One such program is Rutland’s Refugee Resettlement Program, which recently accepted 14 Syrian refugees, eight of whom are children, and awaits the arrival of several more of the long-vetted families.
The world is currently experiencing the worst refugee crisis since WWII. Sixty-five million people have been forcibly uprooted from their homes and communities around the world due to conflict, war, and human rights abuses. Twenty-five million are refugees, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.” Of those, only 1 percent will be resettled.
The scale of the humanitarian crisis is unimaginable, and the suffering is indescribable. Jan Egeland, former special advisor to the U.N. Secretary General for conflict prevention and resolution, said, “Never in my thirty-five years working in the field of humanitarian relief and human rights have I seen so many crises at the same time. … Less than a decade ago more than a million Iraqi refugees fled that country’s civil war and poured into Syria. … which was viewed as a stable country to reside in.” He explained that today, Syria tops the list for displacements. The neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Northern Iraq have taken the primary responsibility of giving more than 3 million Syrian refugees access to their territories. But the vicious cycle of the refugee crisis lasts, on average, more than a decade. Without long-term solutions and hope for a brighter future, refugee youth could be driven to extremism, Egeland concluded.
Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Article 13 states that everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Article 14 affirms that everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. When a country is at war with itself or other nations, and the people are not safe at home nor elsewhere in their homeland, they are forced to flee to anywhere they can survive.
As a major world leader, the U.S. has a responsibility to do our part in alleviating the suffering and conditions that have led to this major humanitarian crisis. History will judge who stepped up to take action. At the film screening, former Rutland Mayor Chris Louras said that “refugee resettlement can only be humanized and normalized when the true faces of resettled refugees are among us … enriching our schools, workplaces, and communities … demonstrating the will to succeed for themselves and their children.”
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer in the Green Mountains of Vermont and on Florida’s Gulf Coast. She applauds Vermont for being a refuge to asylum seekers and refugees throughout its rich history.