Ten years after the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Syria is still the world’s largest refugee crisis. In Simple As Water, the documentary from Academy Award-winning director Megan Mylan, portraits of Syrian families filmed over five years in five countries reveal the impact of war, separation, and displacement and reify the universal importance of family. Panelists discuss this soon-to-be released HBO documentary, the Syria crisis, and the obstacles refugee families face.
HESSMAN: Thank you. Good evening and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations discussion of the documentary film Simple As Water. I’d like thank Richard Haass and Nancy Bodurtha and the CFR meetings team for having us tonight. And I also want to thank all of you for investing your Tuesday evening, and for having taken the time to watch the sneak preview of the film. Simple As Water opens theatrically tomorrow in New York, and then goes on to San Francisco and Los Angeles, before becoming widely available on HBO and HBO Max later this month.
I’m thrilled we have Deborah Amos presiding tonight, a veteran reporter at NPR, who has been revealing the complexity of the issue in Syria, and also issues facing refugee families for years. And Deb is a veteran presider for CFR meetings, so we are in excellent hands.
But before I pass the baton over to her, I just wanted to say a few words about Simple As Water as a film and what drew me to this project as a producer and filmmaker. And that was the particular approach of director Megan Mylan. I saw footage from a first shoot that took my breath away, the incredible intimacy, how the love between members of these families was almost palpable. And as contrast, the soaring images captured an indelible sense of place and scale. But it was through conversations with Megan about how she works, including on her early seminal film Lost Boys of Sudan, that it became clear that all of the cinematic beauty and filmmaking craft hangs on a scaffolding of deep research and journalistic rigor.
So now let me hand it over to Deb, who will introduce our illustrious panel and start the discussion. Thank you.
AMOS: Thanks so much, Robin. I hope all of you will catch up on this film if you haven’t seen it. There’s no statute of limitations. It is hopeful. It is heartbreaking. It takes place in five places. It stays out of the way, this film, and you just see.
So let me introduce the panel.
Robert Carey, who is leadership and government fellow at the Open Society. He knows tons about refugee resettlement, and in particular resettling minors—refugees who are unaccompanied and who come alone.
Megan Mylan, who is the director of Simple As Water. Congratulations on a just terrific film. And I know you must have butterflies because tomorrow’s your big day, but we will—we will usher you into the future.
Lina Sergie Attar, a great friend. I have been to her projects in southern Turkey, and I welcome you as well, who has firsthand information on plights of refugees.
I want to open, Megan, with you. I was so attached to all of those people. Now I need to know, what happened to them? How is everybody doing? And are those children still living on the clay in Greece?
MYLAN: I’m going to give away the—it’s not a plot-drive movie, but if anyone hasn’t watched here comes some spoilers. But, I mean, you know, I think one of the intentionalities about the film was to leave people a bit mid-stride, because as everyone listening to this and all of you who have worked so intensely, these aren’t resolution kind of stories. But I can—I can tell you the children in Greece are now in Germany, and are thriving, and are enormous. Because documentaries take a long time to edit, so years now have passed since we finished filming with them. They’re enormous and vibrant and, you know, seemingly well-integrated. Fatan (ph), the young girl, is now a full-on teenager.
The father’s roommate in Germany, whose wife had cancer and was still inside Syria and he was desperately trying to get her to come, he actually was given asylum. And so his whole family—the little birthday boy who he bought the keyboard for and wasn’t able to see—they all came, and she’s getting great care. The brother—it’s a long list. It’s a big family in this movie. (Laughs.) The brothers in our U.S. chapter—the younger brother was granted asylum. The older brother in still in limbo, but he married and has children. So his likelihood of being able to stay—you know, and with the administration change as well, so—is better. And Abeid (ph), his younger brother, graduated from high school and is this strapping, handsome young man. And Omar is thriving in his job.
So, you now, but I think what we’re trying to say at the end of the movie is, like, yes, there is some joy again, and, yes, these are things that will linger, right? I mean, the moves and all this. But everybody—you know, it’s very forward thinking, right? And so life goes on. And the more opportunities and openings we provide, or they find, for live to be good, the better that outcome is. But the determination to move forward is there.
AMOS: You know, I teach journalism, and refugee journalism. And I always say to my students, it’s how you frame them. They are resilient. They are always resilient. It’s always amazing what happens with refugees. And I’m sure you found the same.
MYLAN: Absolutely. I mean, one of my first research calls on this was with a Syrian woman who was then living in Egypt. And she’s like: You need to understand, this isn’t about just surviving. Like, of course, that’s step one. It’s thriving. So, right, these are lives that had all the same expectations and aspirations of anybody else, mid-stride plans for university, plans for their cousin’s wedding, plans for retirement. And we wanted to convey that in the film. And, I mean, that was one of the big challenges was how do you convey this scale but do it with a level of intimacy and complexity that gives everyone their dimensions and their individuality. And that’s sort of how we landed on this vignetted structure. But absolutely. I mean, you know, I think all of us as a collective, you know, jobs is to not make it so hard for each other. When people do survive, then how can we help the thriving happen, I guess? The rebuilding.
AMOS: Lina, I want to take this conversation one step higher up, and that is to the general population of Syrian refugees, who don’t get a lot of coverage these days because, you know, there’s always a new story about new people who are on the move. Can you just tell us, you know, from your school in Reyhanli, from people that come here, is there any way to characterize how Syrians are managing in what has been a tough resettlement for them?
ATTAR: Absolutely. I think that it’s really important to remember that this crisis has been going on for more than ten years. And so when we talk about Syrian refugees and families and kids, like Megan was saying, kids grow up. And they’re always on the move. So in our Karam Houses that we have in Turkey, we often find that people have been displaced several times before they even reach to a place like Istanbul, before they reach to Germany. They have been resettled more than that. And the years have been passing. And they’re moving from school to school. And it’s not a monolithic group. Every country is different. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are faring very differently than Syrian refugees in Jordan, versus Turkey. The pandemic has complicated everything.
So for the families and the kids that we work with in Turkey, we see, you know, a lot of integration into the public schools but, at the same time, a very high level of discrimination from the—from the public. It becomes very political how people treat refugees. For children, they’re dealing with a lot of the trauma from the war and the violence that they actually witnessed and sometimes actually suffered themselves from the war. In addition to that, a lot of bullying and not being able to integrate into the school system. So really, really difficult times for families, for moms and dads, and for kids, for the refugees. And at the same time, a lot of resilience, a lot of focus on the future, knowing that being able to get those jobs skills and that education to be able to move forward is on top of mind for refugees.
AMOS: We are at a moment politically where the Assad regime in Syria is being normalized by some countries. They’re back in the WHO. They’re back in Interpol. The Jordanians, the UAE are working very hard on normalizing. The rest of the region is too. What does that mean for people who are refugees now, from a regime that looks like it will survive and has won the war?
ATTAR: It’s devastating. It’s devastating not just for refugees, for the Syrian diaspora, for Syrian Americans like myself, for people who can’t go back home. It’s a devastation because—and it’s for everybody, even the people that are living inside Syria. This is not an OK situation. I think world leaders have decided that this is OK. And I think this decision was made very—at the beginning of the revolution and the war, and it continued. But now we’re in a situation where, you know, when there’s talks of normalizing this regime, in reality there’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of fear for people to go back to their homeland. For the refugees, like the people that I work with that are coming out of Aleppo and Idlib, even if they don’t—they’re not afraid of the regime, they don’t have anything to go back to.
We’re talking about people—complete villages and towns devastated. People don’t have homes and there is no economy. So it’s kind of this façade that’s being built that, yes, you can go back to Syria. Everybody will be safe. But nobody’s talking about the tens of thousands of detainees, the disappeared, what happens when people go back, how are they treated? This is still an authoritarian state, and there’s much, much fear. And I think it’s a big—it’s a big privilege for people to talk about, you know, just go back, you’ll be OK, because they want to get, you know, kind of done with the refugee problem. But it’s not a solution and it’s not something real in the eyes of millions of Syrians.
AMOS: Bob Carey, I hope you can give us the view from Washington. We’ve had a change of administrations, different policy on refugees. Yet, in—we now have an Afghan crisis of refugees. And I wonder if they will—that group will get more attention than the other groups who were hoping that this year finally there’ll be a—125,000 refugees resettled by the Biden administration. But, you know, it may be that those are Afghans.
CAREY: Well, you know, it’s encouraging and positive that the number has been set—that the ceiling has been set at 125,000. That’s a very positive move. But there’s a difference between setting the ceiling, and funding the ceiling, and making it happen. And these programs have been virtually gutted by the prior administration. So, you know, putting the infrastructure in place because children need to be registered for school, people need assistance in getting employment. There are a whole host of services that refugees need, and that’s in the—you know, in the context of COVID, which is still a—you know, a challenge.
I think, you know, it’s extraordinary the number of Afghans that were brought to the U.S. that were, I think upwards of 65,000. But they did not come in with refugee status. They came in with humanitarian parole. So it’s still a matter of regularizing their status here. And that’s, you know, not a simple task. And I believe the administration and Congress have made some positive moves in that direction. But initially it means they’re not eligible for health services, they’re not employment authorized, they don’t have access to, you know, a whole host of services that they would if they came in with refugee status. And that’s getting in the weeds a little bit, but it’s an important detail.
Also there are people who’ve been left behind. There are people, and we all know them—Deborah knows them well, I’m sure—people who are affiliated with American organizations, universities, educated women who were not able to get out. And what happens to them? They are in need of protection. Their lives are at risk. And I think exploring or looking at how those individuals can both get out and be provided with refuge either in the U.S. or somewhere else. And if not here, then U.S. engagement in the process. So I hope that answers your question, Deborah. I tend to get a little overly detailed when I get into the weeds on these things.
AMOS: It’s OK. I’m a bad—I’m a bad weed person, myself. So let me ask you one more weedy question, which is for the first time America’s going to—not for the first time. We did it in the Reagan administration. Is experimenting with private resettlement, which is groups of Americans can band together, can raise money, and with some help from the resettlement organizations—there’s nine of them in America. They’re private. Many of them are religiously affiliated. But these people can take on the task of resettling people. Do you think that this will help with the—you know, this giant group of people who are coming? And will the Syrians get some benefit from that?
CAREY: Absolutely. You know, and it’s important to note, there have always been volunteers involved in the refugee program.
CAREY: And that’s part of why—the greatness of the American communities and individuals who embrace refugees and help them integrate and provide them with a personal touch that is really critical in adjusting. So I think this is a wonderful move. And I think it needs—the fact that it’s a pairing of the professionals and the community members is really one of the key ingredients that I hope will make it a successful—and I believe will make it a successful effort. The details still need to be worked out in some places and scaled, because bringing in this many people in this short a time, as I mentioned before, presents challenges. But we’ve done it before. You know, when Vietnamese refugees were coming here, you know, there had been large numbers of refugees. And the U.S. has risen to that challenge. And the nonprofit and community level actors have done the same. So I think we can do it, and do it well.
AMOS: Megan, I want to go back to filmmaking, because I’m always interested when I see that is that beautifully and simply produced, you know that—I mean, what we say at NPR is the simpler it is, the harder it was to do. Can you talk a little bit about how that works, who’s in the field? You’re in Syria. Did you—I know that you didn’t do that. So how do you do that?
MYLAN: Thanks. Yes, it wasn’t simple, but nor what was happening to these families and to Syria, nor are the issues we’re talking about. And so I got pulled into this story as a mother. I had a three-year-old at the time that, you know, the main exodus, you know, was really intensifying. And I just couldn’t just figure out whether I would rise to the occasion. You know, if I could manage to get my child to physical safety, and then I still had to put them on a smuggler’s boat and say everything is going to be OK. I mean, so it was from a very, like, emotional place that I was pulled in, from seeing photos children—you know, Alan Kurdi, and the shoes, the same Velcro ties that my son had, and numerous—I mean, so many—so much amazing coverage and photographs coming out.
But then, to choose to enter that space as a non-Syrian and make films about people who were enduring really unspeakable loss, you don’t just jump into that, if you have a soul, you know, and if you want to always be, you know, a human first and a filmmaker second. So we went about, you know, doing really extensive conversations. Once I sort of landed on this point of view of parenthood, of coming into it as that—like, what is the family experience born of displacement, and doing these vignetted stories, then it was about extensive conversations with Syrian families who had been through this, with journalists who had covered it, with NGO people in the field, just, you know, hundreds of—every call led to three more calls. And you get a little nugget from each conversation. And then it’s—what started to come through were some through-lines about this experience, right?
So children taking on adult responsibilities, flips in gender norms where mothers are now, you know, the sole providers and the solo parent, the fact that we needed to focus on countries in the region, that most refugees don’t end up in the U.S., or Germany, or Sweden. And so with all of that sort of information of what we needed to find, then we started building relationships. And so you go out. And we had two Syrian co-producers worked across stories with us, but then each chapter had its own little family, its own curated team. And often it was a freelance journalist and either a Syrian journalist or just a refugee. I mean, one of the things of half of the country fleeing is there were amazing people to hire in every country we were landing in.
And so they would go out and start these conversations with families, and be looking for those elements. Like, we’re looking for families that have a few of these through-lines, these thematics. But they also have to have that film magic. You know, they have to have presence. They have to, like, Fayaz (ph), the twelve-year-old in Turkey, you know, who’s just got, like, the whole world on his face, you know, and says so much without saying anything. And so I was really fortunate to have this amazing network of people scouting all of that.
And then it’s about building relationships, because our biggest collaboration are with the families in the film. So they had to be families that wanted to be part of this, you know? And I was—Lina and I were talking earlier. And I was saying, you know, this is the first film I’ve worked on where I didn’t even—often I say, well, if only the world knew what was going on. Like, that’s our mission, let everyone know and maybe things will change. I didn’t even go anywhere near that, like, you know, because by the time this particular documentary—I mean, I’m not a fast out of the gate filmmaker. By the time we were coming to this, and this—you know, so they each for different reasons, you know, found their own reason to want to participate.
And so we started building relationships and building trust. And having, you know, lead Syrian film producers and co-producers was absolutely essential. There’s just no way this film would be as intimate as it, would be—you know, would be as layered as it is without that participation. But, still, it’s—you know, it’s the family stories, what they—the layers they choose to share with us on any given day. We’re in there very, very close, but, you know, no one—no one shares everything, so.
AMOS: Do you have people—did you have people in Syria?
MYLAN: Oh, right, sorry. Yeah. So, I mean, I felt—as we started reading this, the story of the disappeared and detained, I mean, as I—it really wasn’t on my radar as much. And it’s just, you know, so unconscionable and wrenching. And that—you know looking at it through the eyes of parents, for me the not knowing, as I would read the stories and, like, reports coming out from Human Rights Watch and stuff, is parents who, you know, just every single day, maybe there’ll be a knock at the door. You know, that just felt like such an intense part of this experience, and so an essential one to include. And even if half the country had fled, half the country was still there.
But it was hard. It’s the first I’ve directed remotely. So we worked through two women who are in the film, credited under pseudonyms, and a woman named Noura Ghazi, who’s a human rights lawyer and focuses on the detained. And helped us sort of start having conversations. At first, we were looking, is there a way to share a family whose child has been detained by the regime? And I heard stories that I’ll never—you know, the collective—my collective family in my head that I’ll never forget. But we just all decided it was too risky to include that in this kind of a film, which is so much about face and observation, and so revealing anyone’s identity.
But we didn’t really ever spend much time thinking about my going. It would have—to me, it would have felt indulgent. Like, it would have been a risk to the family, a risk to the crew. But what we did is loads and loads of Skype, and WhatsApp, and sending files back and forth, and then meeting up Beirut. And so—but we landed on a—on a family in Masyaf whose child was taken by ISIS—whose son Mohammad was taken by ISIS and felt that there was a relative amount of safety. And they had already been public about his case, and wanted it shared—which is always the key, is they wanted us to tell it. And so that intimacy I feel like is from our two women crew people who just built so much trust and respect with the family that they were spending time with.
AMOS: I’m going to ask Lina one more question, but I wanted to say to our audience that please send in your questions, and we will let you do what I’m doing. (Laughs.) I will turn it over to you at the bottom of the hour.
I have one more question for you, Lina. And that is Megan’s brought up something interesting. In Germany, what I always hear is: If people only knew that the reason so many Syrians were on the road was not because of the war so much, but because of the disappearances, because of the torture, because a parent was always afraid that their child would be arrested, and they would be tortured to death—that’s what it was that drove people out. A war, they could manage. But the widespread roundup of people and, you know, these terrible deaths is what put people on the road. And I wondered if you agreed with that, that that is really the untold story about Syria.
ATTAR: Yeah, I agree. I mean, the war itself was its own form of escalated torture. I mean, I lived in Syria myself in the late ’80s and the ’90s. And my family—I’m originally from Aleppo. And, you know, fear is very real growing up in Syria. No matter what socioeconomic group you come from, you have to live in fear otherwise you can’t survive in Syria. And I think, yes, the fear of torture is extreme. The fear of living in these places that were being bombed every day was very extreme. And people had to leave for their livelihoods. And you see in Megan’s film, the separated families is a very common occurrence, that they couldn’t even flee at the same time.
The willingness for people to risk their lives to get on these smuggler boats. I mean, so many of the refugee families I work with in that period of time, 2015-2016, ’17, when so many people were going on those boats to Greece, these Syrians were middle-class Syrians. They’re the people who had the cash to pay to the smugglers to get on these boats. I was working with Syrians who were just begging me to see, like, how can we even get on a boat to leave? And so it’s very, very tragic. That fear is very real. And it still exists today. And, you know, from the Karam House kids and even our Karam House team, we hire all Syrian refugees to run our projects and our work. So many of the people that we hire have survived chemical weapons attacks, survived hunger sieges, people living—you know, they tell stories of living for months in bunkers, not having access to food. And they were dreaming always of being able to be in a safe place, in a safe city, to be able to pursue their dreams and to pursue a future. It’s a very common story.
AMOS: When you watch Megan’s film, because you’re a Syrian and because you’ve been doing so much work with refugees, do you think you see different things than we do? Do you see it in a deeper way than we do? And if the answer is yes, then what is it that you saw that you think maybe we missed if we don’t know it as intimately as you do?
ATTAR: I mean, obviously when I see these—every story is so special and different. And Megan’s film is very sensitive. I see in their faces and their stories very common stories that I know. But they’re all very, very specific. You know, people have their real lives. And I relate to all of this in the same way Megan does, in the same you do, Deb.
I mean, we—as, you know, women, as human beings, for myself as a mother, I know—I mean, everybody here in this audience, there’s a very thin line between any one of us and being a refugee. For me, it’s because I was born in America and I’m an American citizen. And so I—whenever I work with refugees and work with Syrian people, I know for a fact that the tables could have been very much different if I was born in Syria instead of being born in the United States. And I think that’s true for every person, to know that it’s a very thin line that separates us. And it’s really the sheer luck of where we’re born.
And that alone makes me think of all of these kids that could have been my kids, and vice versa. And that humanity that shines through, and that reality that we need to be offering refugees the most safety, the most tools, the most opportunities, because that’s the only thing that will change the situation. What we’ve been advocating for for all these years as Syrians and Syrian Americans is that ending the war would have ended this refugee crisis. But we are where we are now.
And we need to be able to give refugee youth and families all of the support, and with radical generosity, in order for us to create a different kind of future for these people so that they can take care of themselves, and their families, and their communities. Because that’s what ultimately every refugee, like every human being, wants. They want shelter. They want safety. They want belonging. They want home. Everything that we want, and what we want for our kids, refugees want. And you can see that very clearly in this film.
AMOS: I’m going to have Laura explain how the questioning goes, and then we’ll come back to our conversation. Laura.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Doug Jackson.
Q: Hi. Thanks. And thanks to the panel. My question is—my name is Doug Jackson. I’m a military fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. My question is to Megan.
Congratulations on the work. I was absolutely mesmerized by the storytelling, the stories. I especially appreciated the lack of narration and your willingness to allow the viewer to interpret and empathize. I’m interested in your creative process on that. Was there any consideration of a narrator or text or something to drive the story? Or all along did you just know that’s how you wanted to present it? Thanks again.
MYLAN: Thank you so much for your question. That’s the style of filmmaking that I have been doing for the last couple of decades. It comes somewhat organically for me. I think it’s kind of telling the relationship that I have with the subjects that I film, that I am trying to give you a sense—I’ve identified someone who I think is worthy all of us knowing, and I want to get as close and as knowledgeable as I can about it, but then just sort of give the audience the experience that I have of being with them. But rather than my interpreting it, letting you sort of get in there and look around, and spend time as a warmly invited guest, you know, not the center of attention. And so I work with—so we didn’t—we didn’t ever think about narration.
There are times—I mean, one of the challenges with observational cinema verité filmmaking is that you don’t get to, you know, give a lot of detail and explanation. And so then you have to be very careful in the editing that the conclusions that you might be leading a(n) audience to have their takeaways are accurate. And so you do a lot of, you know, screening rough cuts. But very much as you said, what my goal is, is to let—and echoing sort of what Lina said—is to let everybody come into the movie and have their own experience of it. It’s no longer my film. It really never was my film alone. But hopefully there’s room in there for you to bring your life experience and for you to connect with one thing and another viewer to connect with something else.
And so hopefully we’ve managed to weave in information. And we’re always looking for those moments where there’s a conversation with a stranger, or somebody explains themselves. I’m sure as you do in radio as well, you sort of, like, get those facts in there, but in a way that feels really organic and interesting. And that it’s—there’s enough in there that it’s resonate for people who know a lot about the subject matter, but not unattainable and inaccessible to people who don’t. So thank you for your question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jody McBrien.
Q: (Off mic)—McBrien. I’m currently a CFR fellow and I’m at the OECD in Paris right now. I have spent about twenty years working in refugee research and working with refugees internationally, and I so appreciate this documentary.
No matter how many times, you know, I work with refugees around the world, I’m always heartbroken by the stories. And so I guess my question is, you know, how do we get beyond the misinformation of what it means to be a refugee? I thank your film for doing this kind of work, and I am so troubled by the terrible misinformation about who refugees are. And so, you know, I just—I welcome your comments about any ways that we can continue to help the public understand who refugees really are. Thank you.
AMOS: We have plenty of people address that.
MYLAN: I was going to say. (Laughs.)
AMOS: So let’s have all of you speak. Do you want to start with Megan, or do you want to start with Bob? Bob, you’ve been quiet. Why don’t you start?
CAREY: Well, being quiet is not my strong suit.
AMOS: I know that. (Laughs.)
CAREY: But I think, you know, Deborah is an example of the kind of responsible journalism that shines a light on these crises and these personal stories. And so I think there needs to be that type of responsible journalism combatting the misinformation. I think this effort to engage local communities, who have always been engaged during this co-sponsorship program. You know, I’ve been in many communities across the U.S., and abroad, but in the U.S. where people who have a xenophobic approach and don’t understand, they meet a refugee who lives near them and they don’t understand, why can’t we bring their brother? It’s that personal connection that really influences the feeling and combats the xenophobia and the misinformation.
And I think it’s important for people to know that refugees who come to the U.S. are the most heavily vetted individuals who come here under any status. So the idea that they pose a security risk is not born out by the history, by the facts, by the means by which they enter. And I think also, the history of this country—you know, we are—these are the founding principles, you know, providing refuge to people who fleeing persecution, often because they’re associated with the U.S., our democratic values, or, you know, freedom of speech, or women’s rights. So I think, you know, these are the facts that we need to constantly repeat and find vehicles for getting out.
And I think this forum, putting individuals in front of people, because I think when we hear about one hundred thousand, six hundred thousand, ten thousand—these aggregate numbers to many people lose the stories that lie within them. And like these stories, there is a universality. They’re all different, but these are families. And they’re families, like our families. And they’re parents. We’re all part of families at some level. And these are—you know, these are the bonds that help these families survive, mothers and fathers taking care of their children. You know, that that is universal and people need to, at some level, understand these basic facts, not the misinformation.
AMOS: Lina, do films change things?
ATTAR: I think they create a lot of empathy. I think films especially—and on Syria specifically—we have films about every subject. So if people wanted to get educated and feel for the people of Syria, you have, like, Megan’s film about refugees. You have films about the detainees. You have films about the war. And so this—the revolution and the war in Syria really ignited, as Megan was talking about, you know, you have a whole generation of young people in Syria that acted as these citizen journalists. And so you had—it’s the most documented war. And so there is so much knowledge.
But I agree with Bob, I think the most important thing that you can do if you wanted to, you know, create empathy in your communities is go volunteer, and work, and meet refugees in your community, wherever they’re from, because that opens up the doors. I’ve seen it so many time with people. You know, one family gets adopted by a community and it changes people’s minds about, you know, the story of the war, who refugees are.
And what I tell people, especially when the crisis—the refugee crisis was at its peak, you have to understand that refugees are fleeing the terror that we are afraid of. The refugees are least people to be afraid of. They are fleeing what’s actually really scary, and that’s, you know, the Syrian regime and the extremists that now rule Syria, and are ruling groups of people, no matter which side you live under, under a lot of terror. And the refugees that are coming out of it are fleeing that terror that we are afraid of ourselves.
AMOS: Megan, you know, theater owners are businesspeople. They book a film because they think people are going to come to see it. So the fact that you are opening tomorrow and then across the country tells me something, that they know something that I’m surprised by but glad to hear. What do you hope—
MYLAN: (Inaudible.) And we’re not on thousands of screens like—(laughs)—
AMOS: But still, you know, you’re not just New York and Washington, and that is something.
MYLAN: Yeah, and HBO and HBO Max, I mean, getting it out wide and globally. I mean, I think that the film’s focus on sort of the parental experience of this is an incredibly accessible one. And so, I mean, when we were filming in German—Greece, Germany, with the family separation, and I watched these fathers missing all of these milestones in their children’s lives, and their children missing their fathers’ participation, and then the family separations in the U.S. were—and I was, like, oh, wait, we’re actually doing it one worse. You know?
So it was just—you know, and I feel like it is a point, not to sort of over-belabor it, but it’s so primal. Like, we’ve all been someone’s child, if we’re not parents ourselves. And so I think there’s an opportunity. I mean, I think the sort of opening of hearts and people’s empathy and interest in what’s happening in Afghanistan is an opportunity for opening. The film that Bob and I met on was Lost Boys of Sudan. And it was a group of young southern Sudanese men, mainly men, who had come to the U.S. And they were very much embraced. And so then I think, you know, the job of those of us who have these moments, have these tools of the film—I mean, the film is—it’s cinema. I hope it’s just an emotional pleasure, maybe at points painful but there’s joy to watch.
But then the conversations that we wrap around it I think are these, that say—I mean, our experience with Lost Boys of Sudan was the single most significant thing in those young men’s lives was when someone in the community—when the refugee agencies knew how to engage the community, knew how to attract volunteer mentors, knew which community colleges had good programs and good counselors. It’s all about that. It’s all about integrating. I mean, Omar in our U.S. chapter was doing dead-end job after—you know, appliance delivery, Amazon deliveries, Uber driver. And this is a guy who almost finished university. And as soon as we were done filming, we could put on our sort of helpful auntie social worker hat, and all we did was very gingerly got him an interview. And that’s all he needed.
He has an amazing job. He was in sort of quality assurance, and he had had a computer science degree. He was—Amazon tried to hire him away, flew him across the country for an interview. So I mean, as Lina had said, all he needed was that one opportunity. And so then doing things like educating employers about how to, like, not have your human resources department looking only for these checked boxes, and looking at refugees in their fullness. So you were asking about cinema. I mean, yes, I mean—you know, I don’t know if we’re going to be the runaway box office hit. But there is—I still believe there’s something really beautiful about this shared experience of watching a film, the energy of hearing when somebody laughs and when they—(gasps)—you know? And all of that. But then now we can create that like this too. We are having a shared experience of the film at the same time, so.
AMOS: You know, I was reading Nick Kristof as he said goodbye as a columnist. And he’s been, you know, the chief empath of the New York Times. And he said: Talent is universal. Opportunity is not. And that’s what you see with refugees. Talent, boy, people have got talent. And then you’ve got to figure out how to do something with it.
Lauren, can we have another question? Laura, sorry.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Welby Leaman.
Q: Thanks a lot for this.
I’m from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is one of the places that for decades intensively resettled refugees and benefited from them. Lancaster’s also a decidedly very Republican, conservative area, and has a lot of people who are very motivated by their religious values in their voting and their other actions. So do you see in the relationship between refugees and their new host communities any seeds of resolution to this sort of terrible polarization we see in most other places in the United States and other countries?
CAREY: I’ll jump in. I wouldn’t say—I don’t know if I see resolution, but there’s a very positive history. One of the most active resettlement agencies is the most—is conservative Evangelicals. So, you know, and their leadership has embraced refugees. And so, you know, there are statements you can look at online. So, you know, it’s not all negative.
There are—and there’s a history there of, you know, engagement, support, which belies some of the press we hear. Having said that, it’s not all fine and good, you know? So as you’ve seen in Lancaster, it’s well known as one of those communities, and there are others very much like it, where refugees are not only—Utica, New York, a very positive economic example where the community has essentially been turned around by the economic engine of refugees who tend to start businesses at much higher rates, who tend to be entrepreneurial.
There are big issues with professional accreditation, because that is a—you know, there are doctors, engineers who find it very difficult to be reaccredited in their former—you know, who are now working in minimum wage jobs or something at that level, which is a lost talent for the U.S., it’s a lost resource. So there are good stories, and there are the frustrating ones. So I think there’s hope, you know, that we can overcome some of these obstacles. There are a lot of people in Washington, at the state and community level are working to resolve a lot of these issues. And I’m hopeful they’ll continue to make progress.
AMOS: Can I make an observation and ask you about this? For a long time I was wondering, well, so why are we sometimes anti-refugee, which we are. We saw it for four years. And is it the economy that is the kickoff? Is it a particular number of people who come here? And I asked and asked and asked. And the answer that made the most sense is it’s a leadership issue. If the president of the United States says refugees are bad, then it allows people to say they are bad. And if the president of the United States does not, as we’ve seen with what’s happens with the Afghans, it changes the whole tenor of what’s happening here. Now am I being simplistic? Do you think that that has something to do with what we are seeing?
CAREY: May I? Well, I think it’s important to remember historically two of the biggest champions of the refugee cause in the U.S. in the Senate were Senators Kennedy and Brownback. You know, I think that shows us not only what was, but what can be. You know, it need not be a political polarizing force. That with that leadership of the type we’ve seen in the past, you know, refugees can be embraced to a greater degree than they have been.
And I think that’s—you know, the articulation of these stories by you, Deborah, and filmmakers like Megan and Robin are a critical ingredient in that. But it’s not the only—it’s taking that energy that you have, and really translating it, and having the leadership translate it to—across the country. And I agree, there have been times when that’s been a critical element in allowing people in, and in embracing them, and in telling the story and the narrative that is part of our souls, yeah.
AMOS: Lina, do you see a difference in attitude?
ATTAR: Between administrations?
AMOS: Yeah, between a year ago and today, between how the Afghan refugees are being welcomed and—you know, there are still some Syrians coming in, and there will be in this 125,000. Do you see a difference in what you read, what you see?
ATTAR: Yes, of course. I mean, it’s a massive difference. You know, with Karam Foundation we even had work that was—under the Obama administration the number of refugees was higher than under Trump, but it wasn’t very high compared to the number of Syrian refugees. I mean, that was something that we were asking the administration. And then under President Trump it went down to almost zero. So it is a big difference between administrations. We even had work helping Syrian refugees in the U.S. which we kind of, like, halted during the Trump administration because, you know, there were no new Syrian refugees coming in.
But at the same time, it’s—between, you know, seeing what happened with the Afghan refugees, and that openness for Afghan refugees to come to the United States—which is actually very, very important—I think that there’s also this attitude of we weren’t really involved as the U.S. in the Syrian crisis, so almost there’s this sense of guilt or sense of responsibility of what happened in Afghanistan. But I actually see that if we look at what happened in Syria, maybe—it definitely wasn’t the same as what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there was a full turning away from a war being waged on a country by its own government and its allies.
And there was no international community that stepped in on behalf of the Syrian people. There was no humanitarian intervention in that good sense of the world, because that kind of ended up being, like, something bad. But I truly believe that there is very much a need for humanitarian intervention to exist in the world to stop the kinds of things that happen in Syria because it was completely unnecessary. If there was a no-fly zone in Syria, we still might have a war, there still might be fighting. I’m not saying it would have been perfect. But my city, Aleppo, would exist right now. And now it doesn’t exist.
And so I think that we need to look at these terms that are setup—that were setup by the U.N., and are not really followed. And we come as Americans and maybe even in Europe very cynical towards these terms. But we’re only cynical because of the way that they’ve been acted on by previous governments. But there is a real need to take on the tyrants of the world. And we’re going to continue to see crises like Syria happen, even if there is no direct intervention like what we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.
AMOS: Laura, can we have another question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Abbas Barzegar.
Q: Hi there, everybody. Abbas Barzegar here. Thank you to the CFR for hosting this discussion. My work is—my work for years and years was informed on refugee engagement and nonprofit services to that community. So Megan, Lina, Robert, Deborah, everybody, thank you for hosting the conversation.
I have a question about resettlement agency processes that I’ve always been confused about. I joined the call about ten minutes late, so excuse me if it was already covered. However, I’ve always been curious as to—a bit related to the question about Lancaster. I’ve always been curious to know why it’s the case that many refugees are resettled in extremely rural parts of this country. I visited a community in Twin Falls, Idaho that was employed at the Chobani factory. It was an amazing community of really, really vulnerable families. And they were—they had great opportunity in their livelihood, but what took me there was exploring attacks on their mosques and attacks on their children at school. And we were doing a bit of, like, an investigation and learning tour about Islamophobia in these parts.
I live in Atlanta, and the refugees come in through Clarkston, which has now become acclimated—and the city’s become acclimated to that. But they’re also resettled in places like, you know, Tennessee and Kentucky and other areas where there isn’t an infrastructure. There isn’t, I should say, a social or cultural infrastructure to support these groups. So any insight onto where is it that these resettlement agencies are placing people and why is it that there seems to be this pattern across the country?
AMOS: Abbas, you’ve come to the right place. I think we have many people who can speak to this. (Laughs.) Let’s start with Megan. And I know that, Bob, you know exactly what the answer is. And then to Lina, because you’re all working on this. Let’s start with Megan.
MYLAN: I would call Bob and ask for an explanation. But, no, I mean, you know, I think one issue is, you know, where you can afford to rebuild a life, right? And I remember a scene we wanted to do in Lost Boys of Sudan, not sure it still happens this way, is the sort of meeting of all the refugee agencies when you know the population that’s incoming. And then you say, well, we can accommodate in Atlanta this number. And they sort of figure out who should go where, based on who that population is. I mean, this was decades old. But I always thought that there was a lot of care. Of course, if there’s a family relationship or something, that leads. But when it’s a population—or, if there’s a community basis for that country’s population.
But I mean, I think one of the things we—you see in the U.S. chapter in our story is Omar and Aboudi (ph) who came here as asylum seekers. They came on a health exemption visa and then applied for asylum. And so they didn’t have the benefit of going through the resettlement process. There was no agency. There were no social workers. They were really on their own. And, you know, Omar is such a—was so determined to sort of be everything for his younger brother and provide for him, that he would really look around and try to find the best school district. And so he kept getting into apartments that were really beyond his reach, because he had read that those were good public school districts. And so, you know, just having somebody looking at what are all the factors for success of where populations should be resettled is really important.
AMOS: And Bob, I’m sure you know the answer to this too.
CAREY: Well, it’s not a simple answer. You know, the State Department Bureau of Population Refugees Migration oversees the placement process. But what guides it, for those who have family in the U.S., they go to those locations. And then it’s looking at the availability of housing, employment, and culturally appropriate services. You know, sometimes one trumps the other. If there’s employment or if there’s a large number of people going to one community then the system has to be shifted. And there’s a lot of attention to it, and collection of data to look at where employment outcomes are best, where housing costs—how those can be balanced.
And it’s interesting that you mentioned Twin Falls, because it’s a—it’s a particularly frightening instance, because Twin Falls, there was a good employment situation, there was a supportive community. And when I first heard this, I couldn’t believe it. There was actually a Facebook campaign which ultimately was reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, was fed by Russian bots—(laughs)—to whip up sentiment about the threat of refugees as terrorists. And so representatives from the office I headed in Health and Human Services in the Obama administration and the State Department went out there to have a community meeting about this issue and explain, and no one showed up at the meeting.
So and then a year later, information came out that there’d been an active disinformation campaign about refugees as a security threat through Facebook. So if somebody had told me that at the time, I would have—you know, I would have found it, you know, paranoid and delusional. But I turned out to be true. So I think that was just an example of the threats we face around these issues.
AMOS: And Lina, I’m sure you’re seeing exactly this. You’re in Chicago. That’s a hard place for people to be resettled, because it’s a tough job market and the housing is expensive.
ATTAR: I mean, I don’t know. I never knew why people ended up where. We would always deal with people after the fact, and also the way we would intervene with refugee lives would be actually after the resettlement process, which in the U.S. is actually very short. They’re out of the resettlement process. It’s not like Canada. Often refugees would ask me, how do I get to Canada? And I’m like, I can’t help you on that. So I would help you where you are. But one of the things that—I mean, the approach that we took, or the ways that we approached things at Karam Foundation is that I was looking at refugees.
By the time we were in the U.S., I’m thinking, OK, how can—I know refugees, you left—they left without having that choice. So it’s a different situation than my parents, who left as immigrants to the U.S. But how can we kind of flip the switch as quickly as possible to make you almost like an immigrant versus a refugee? And the intervention that we found as a very small organization was when we would find these people, we found people in Massachusetts, in Vermont, in different places in the country, very remote locations, and parents who actually had degrees that they didn’t have to do the kinds of jobs that they were doing, but they couldn’t get to a job.
So our intervention was buying people cars. And that was—and we called it jumpstart, because I realized, you know, if we were able to jumpstart the few years that they would be able to have to save up the few thousand dollars to actually get to the job that they’re qualified for, then the situation would change. And we saw that happen so many times in different cities and different places, especially when they were remote. I remember an engineer in Massachusetts who was working at a fast-food restaurant. And he just couldn’t get anywhere else. Get him a car, spend a few thousand dollars, and move on.
And so it’s not about creating this burden of, you know, having people to, like, help with rent or help every month, which is something that we weren’t able to do. It was at more of an investment in the family, an investment in the human being for them to be able to do it themselves. And there was one case in Boston where I remember he—the guy used to go—a father used to go on his bicycle to three different jobs in Boston. And you get them—you get them the car and their lives changed forever.
AMOS: Wow. Laura, one—we’ve got a couple more questions. We’re running out of time. Let’s see if we can get them in. Maybe you could have both of them ask their questions and then we’ll finish up on the dot of 6:00, as we do.
OPERATOR: Great. We’ll take the first question from Katie Oh, and then after her we’ll take a question from Joan O’Keefe.
Q: Oh, I am Katie Oh.
I have been working on North Korean issues for the last forty years. And mine is not a question but a special salute to Megan, because of so many documentaries dealing with brutal refugee issues showing the bloody, brutal, violent, almost ugly human beings. But you have a perspective to show some humor, and humanity, and beauty of family life. Very poignant. So I think you should keep up that work. I’ve been actually telling the filmmakers dealing with North Korea, you should see the Simple As Water because I fell in love with everybody that you depict. When a boy said, my dad had (the cutest dimple ?), that conversation remained in my brain for three days. So I just want to salute. And you keep up good work, because my work is advertising your work with the global community, particularly starting with Korea, Singapore, and China, and Japan. Thank you.
MYLAN: Thank you.
Q: Hi. It’s Joan O’Keefe. I’m a sister of charity, working in Halifax, Nova Scotia as a volunteer doula. And I’ve worked with women from Syria.
And I just wanted to say I loved the movie and I’m hoping that we’ll bring it to Canada. And I appreciate all the comments that were made. I have lots of friends who are working with migrants and refugees in the states and across Canada. But I just love the movie. And thank you. Last night I watched the whole thing. Thanks a million.
AMOS: Wow. So we have three minutes left. We’ve been so efficient. I’m going to ask each one of you to just tell me where you think that—what we will be looking at a year from now. Will the resettlement agencies staff up? Will we see 125,000 refugees actually come to America? And on top of that, 7,000 Afghans? And, Megan, will you make a film about it? (Laughs.) So let me—I’m going to leave you for the last word, because it’s your beautiful film. So let me start with Bob.
CAREY: I’m very hopeful. You know, I think it will take an enormous effort and leadership, and but the systems are being put in place. Making it happen is not going to be an easy task. And I’m hopeful that all the parties can come together. It’s been done before. We have a history. And I’m very hopeful that it will, in fact, happen.
ATTAR: I don’t know it would happen a year from now, but I do hope that these numbers come in. And I really have a lot of—I’m really hopeful about the private sponsorship movement that is starting to happen in the United States. I wish it happened earlier, because I know there are so many people who would open up their homes and do something similar to the Canadian model, which has been just amazing to see that thrive. And my hope is that people open up their hearts more for refugees, and share Megan’s film. That’s not one year from now. Share it today, and in the next few weeks, because I think that these kinds of stories of humans really change people’s hearts and minds. And this holiday season, find a refugee family in your community and welcome them into your homes.
AMOS: (Laughs.) I know for so many it’s their first Thanksgiving, right? It’s three holidays—American holidays back-to-back-to-back. So you get—you get complete immersion.
Megan, you have made an extraordinary film. Where are thinking of next? Are you going to stay on this theme? And how are you thinking about what needs to have a light shined on it?
MYLAN: I mean, they’re like children, each film. So this one is still very much at home. (Laughs.) So it’s—we put, you know, as much care and work goes into the distribution and the way the film engages with the community. And so I really love sort of the different hats I get to wear as a filmmaker. And right now, I’m very excited about having conversations like this shining a light on good work that’s happening, on policies that can change, just giving people the experience of collectively watching the film.
So I don’t know exactly what’s next. I mean, I think for all of us here, once you know refugee stories you understand how much humanity and how much of all of us is in those experiences. So I can imagine at some point, even if it’s not, you know, next year, that I come back to it again. But right now, my job is, you know, all of these families put so much trust in me and all of our crew. And my job is to get this film out as widely and as meaningfully as possible, to honor everyone’s investment in it.
AMOS: Great. And good that we could help.
I’d like to thank all of the panel. Megan Mylan is director of Simple As Water. Lina Sergie Attar is a chief executive officer of the Karam Foundation. And Robert Carey, Bob, you are leadership and government fellow Open Society Foundation. And thanks everybody. It was a great panel.
MYLAN: Thank you.
ATTAR: Thank you, Deb.