Meeting

Virtual Screening and Discussion of Flee

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Speakers

CEO, Welcome.US; Former Vice President, Global Policy and Advocacy, International Rescue Committee

Senior Fellow, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security

Filmmaker and Director, Flee

Presider

Afghanistan Coordination Lead and Distinguished Fellow, Freedom House; Former Assistant Secretary, Population, Refugees, and Migration, U.S. Department of State (2012–2017); CFR Member

Our panelists discuss Flee, an animated documentary about a young man's odyssey escaping Afghanistan with his mother and siblings. Twenty years later, he grapples with how his traumatic past will affect his future in Denmark and the life he is building with his soon-to-be husband. The film received the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is shortlisted for the 2022 Academy Awards for both Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature.

RICHARD: Thank you very much, Kayla. And welcome to everyone to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting with Nazanin Ash, Palwasha Hassan, and Jonas Poher Rasmussen to discuss his very moving documentary, Flee, and the challenges facing Afghan refugees. I am Anne Richard. I am the Afghanistan coordination lead and distinguished fellow with Freedom House. And I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion, which is on the record. I’m going to start by introducing you to our three speakers and give you a little bit on their background. I hope you’ve all had a chance to see this beautiful and thoughtful film, which if you haven’t, you’re going to want to after hearing our discussion today.

So Jonas is a Danish-French film director. He has made several films, a couple of documentaries, Something About Halfdan, What He Did, and a feature film, Searching for Bill. But this film, this animated film Flee, has really created some noise and was officially selected for Cannes in 2020, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and prizes at other film festivals as well. So we’re very, very pleased to have you here, Jonas.

We’re also joined by Palwasha Hassan. She is a senior fellow at the Institution for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown. She is a dedicated women’s rights activist, and she has been for quite some time. She has had many achievements on both sides of the Atlantic. She’s worked very hard related to activities to protect Afghan women and children. She also has spent years working to support women’s rights laws in Afghanistan. She previously was a fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. And we congratulate her for her recently receiving the Hillary Rodham Clinton Award for exceptional leadership and dedication to human rights and women’s rights. So welcome, Palwasha.

Nazanin Ash is CEO of Welcome.us, a new national initiative mobilizing Americans and American institutions to help resettle refugees, beginning with our Afghan allies. And this is a very exciting new initiative that was launched this past year with support from three former presidents—President Clinton, President George W. Bush, and President Barak Obama. And she was previously vice president for global policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee, something—a job I know a little bit about—and she has also served at the State Department as a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, on the policy planning staff, and as principal advisor and chief of staff to the person who was then director of U.S. foreign assistance and administrator of USAID. So it’s great to see you, Nazanin.

Without further ado, let’s jump in and talk to our panelist who is in Copenhagen, Jonas. This film was so moving, and it told the story of someone you’ve known since you were fifteen years old. So why did you feel compelled to tell this story? What did you want to capture?

RASMUSSEN: You know, I was curious from almost the day I met him. You know, he arrived all by himself in my little Danish village when I was fifteen and he was sixteen. And he stayed in foster care just around the corner from where I lived. And we slowly became very good friends. But he didn’t want to talk about how and why he had come. So it was always kind of like a black box in our friendship, because it’s been a growing friendship since we met. So I as always curious. So I think the genesis of the project really comes from, you know, me being curious about my friend. I didn’t think I wanted to do a refugee story, and then went out and found a refugee, and did a story. It was really about me be fundamentally curious about his story.

And then fifteen years ago—I have a background in radio. And I asked him if I could do a radio documentary about his story. And he then said that he knew that he would have to share his story at some point, and when he was ready he would like to share with me, but he didn’t feel ready yet. And then, again, years passed. And I kind of had it in the back of my head that this was something we would do together at some point. And then I had the idea to make it as an animated documentary eight years ago. And I asked him again.

And he was really intrigued by the fact that he could be anonymous behind the animation, because he really didn’t want to be, you know, victimized. He didn’t want to be in the public eye with this story, because what you see in the film and what you hear in the film is the very first time he tells the story. And he really wanted to keep control over when he wanted to talk to people about it. So that was really what opened him up and freed him up to share his story. And he thought it was the right way and the right time to finally share his story and make his past and present come back together, because it’s been disconnected for so many years.

RICHARD: So it is really novel that you used animation for this documentary. And you seem to use it in a very interesting way. It’s an innovative choice. Very curious how you came to that decision, and also at some points in the film you intersperse photography, video. So all of a sudden we’re out of the animation and seeing things from the historical record. So that was—that was interesting too. Can you talk a little bit about the making of the film and these choices that you made?

RASMUSSEN: Yes. So, you know, first of all, because he wants to anonymous—the animation as opposed to pictures—but also because, you know, it’s a story that takes place in the past. So it was really about how do you make the past come back alive? How do you make his childhood home come back alive? How do you make Afghanistan in the ’80s and Moscow in the ’90s come back alive? And how do you place him there? And I really like animation was a good choice because we could—we could put together his story and make it feel like it was authentic—you know, it was authentically Afghanistan in the ’80s, and really pay tribute to the testimony that he gave me.

And then we put in these archival shots, this archival footage throughout the film, because I really wanted to remind people throughout the film that this is—this is a real story. You know, underneath the animation, we have a real person. And remind people that the reason why he had to flee was because of historical events that took place in the world we all belong to. So just to make sure that people understood all the way through it that this is, at its core, a documentary. And behind the animation you have a real person and a real story.

RICHARD: So even though his name is changed, the story is his story—your friend’s story. And it’s really stunning the way some pictures, some drawings, can get across such emotion. Palwasha, I want to ask you what you thought and how you felt watching the film. You know, your own journey has been quite different, I imagine, because you were a respected leader and had achieved, you know, prominent positions in Afghanistan, and now in the United States. But did you identify with any of this film?

HASSAN: Thank you very much. I think the movie really kind of moved me. And I had—I’d been watching it last evening. And I had my own personal journey back. For people who are following Afghanistan, they know that it’s over forty-three years that Afghanistan is in conflict. And we have multiple journey of immigration and going through the hardship. The first time I immigrated was to Pakistan, and that was in my early teens. And so that take me back to the way Amin, the character of the story, had, like, as a young person who is following his family where they are tending and don’t understand what’s going on, and not appreciating many things around.

Even the status of refugee is not something which people are looking forward to it, especially not as a young person. And then ending up in a world somewhere. I totally understand why he didn’t spoke because people will not understand from where you are coming. I’d been in Pakistan for many years in privileged school, going with Pakistani children, relatively my family was doing well. But I think I had a big vacuum myself around me. And that was because these kids were coming from families who had totally different story. And I, in my family, we were discussing war, someone who was lost, someone who was arrested, somebody who never made it to safety, where we ended up. And this kind of draw a line between me and other kids with whom I was going to school. So it was emotional for me.

RICHARD: Yeah. I hadn’t realized you were displaced as a teenager. So that is a great parallel.

HASSAN: I have been uprooted, like, three times in my life. And it is—somebody would say I am expert in migration. (Laughs.) But no, each time it is more difficult than other. Even going back to Afghanistan after several years in 2002, coming to my own home I felt like a stranger because I’d grown up in a different culture. I came to my own home, where people were seeing me as a stranger. Or many people who came after a life of refugee back to country, it took a while to be received back in your own society. And then you make that effort to live, and make change, and all that. And suddenly everything vanishes and you are in another journey. And you’re expected to race back and start a new life.

RICHARD: Right, just start over again.

HASSAN: Absolutely.

RICHARD: Do you think Americans appreciate what refugees go through?

HASSAN: I think I’ve been received with so much love and care by my American friends, so it’s difficult to say there is one reality. There has been a lot of anger on what happened in Afghanistan as a failure of United States policies in Afghanistan. But I think the way people has opened up, they helped us to settle in our new neighborhood. We have been so much touched by so much love and care that some American has shown, that has totally changed our perception. And it’s even difficult to me to show the same anger as I was having inside me because of what happened in my country.

RICHARD: Nazanin, is the United States a welcoming place for Afghan refugees?

ASH: As ever, Anne, you ask the most insightful questions. And it’s been a privilege just to listen to this conversation so far. And this is a really good one. And I think I’m very proud to say “yes.” And that evidence is borne out both in polls out and in practice. And I think that story is frequently unrevealed, because of the political toxicity around refugees, asylum, and immigration. But the facts of the matter are that support for refugees have never polled higher than now. And that there is especially, you know, over 80 percent support for Afghan arrivals fleeing this latest phase of violence and persecution and destruction in Afghanistan.

And we also see that in practice. So Welcome.us was stood up because of this tremendous challenge of resettling 100,000 Afghan arrivals in less than six months on a resettlement system that last year resettled just around 11,000 Afghans in the entire year. So ten times the number in half the time. And the insight of Welcome.us’ cofounders, John Bridgeland and Cecilia Munoz—who each worked under—as domestic policy advisors, one under President Bush, one under President Obama—was that it was going to take a whole country effort to be able to respond to this national challenge. And that the capacity challenge that the resettlement system might face could be resolved by encouraging, and enabling, and empowering the participation of a broader range of Americans and American institutions.

And so coming back to your question, what we found—even though, you know, I often say—it says in our mission that we were established to inspire, and to mobilize, and enable and empower Americans and American institutions to participate in resettlement and in the welcome of newcomers beginning with our newest Afghan neighbors—I’m often reminded that we’ve had to do very little in the work of inspiring and mobilizing because so many are putting up their hands to help. And I can share a couple of examples.

You know, Welcome.us is just over a hundred days old. And in that time, it’s built the largest coalition of supporters for resettlement in the history of the resettlement effort, led, as you mentioned, Anne, by three former presidents and three former first ladies. It’s a bipartisan, I would say nonpartisan, council and coalition representing every part of the American tapestry, from arts to media to politics to faith to private sector. And we launched a welcome fund that has so far raised $16 million from over 800 large and small contributors, directing resources to over 500 frontline organizations.

We launched a Miles campaign to allow Americans to contribute their unused airline miles—and all of you have many of them two years into COVID. So we launched a Miles campaign. And we launched that with 600 million miles already contributed from the airline industry. You know, airlines that normally compete with each other coming together to solve this challenge. And, you know, several weeks into the campaign we’re already over 800 million miles, and free flights for almost every Afghan family who’s departing from the military base that’s here.

I can give many, many other examples. Countless new faith and service organizations putting up their hands to participate in resettlement. So we see the desire of Americans to welcome everywhere. And our intention is to enable that participation and tell the story of that participation and remind Americans that indeed we’re a welcoming country.

RICHARD: Thank you, Nazanin.

Jonas, in a minute I’m going to ask you the same question about Denmark, but first I’m going to ask you how Amin feels now, when you’ve talked to him, that we’re witnessing another generation of Afghans who are being forced to flee. Have you had a chance to talk about this with him?

RASMUSSEN: Yeah. Yeah. We’re in touch all the time, and we’re also in touch in August when everything kind of tumbled in Afghanistan. And you know, it was just heartbreaking to see—also, because he still has family in Afghanistan. So he was very—yeah, he was very out of it in those weeks, and trying to figure out what to do. But also, of course, because he’s reminded about his own story, and could now see a new generation of Afghans getting pushed out of the country and being in the same limbo he was in.

And probably in even a worse state because—it’s so good that you, the Americans, are good at taking Afghans, because in Europe it’s not going well, you know? And Denmark was part of the coalition military in Afghanistan. And they’ve been really slow in responding and have been really bad at kind of granting visas to people who helped us in Afghanistan. And it’s been embarrassing, frankly, to see how slow the Danish government kind of reacted to what happened. And still, you know, Afghans who come here, they move on because there’s not really anything to do, like, here.

When Amin arrived back in the ’90s, you know, he was told that he was safe here, that he would be able to stay. And that gave him the chance to really build a new life for himself. But, you know, refugees who come now, because of the rhetoric for many, many years, now, you know, the government say, yes, you can stay here, but as soon as we can we’ll send you back. And that’s—like, that sense of temporarity doesn’t really do anything for starting building a life for yourself. So it’s really a different scenario now than it was when Amin arrived back in the ’90s. So it’s—yeah. It’s been tough to see how poorly the Danish government has treated the Afghans who helped us in the war.

RICHARD: In light of the changed atmosphere in Denmark, how has the film been received?

RASMUSSEN: No, but—you know, it had amazing reviews and people went to see it in the cinemas. And because, you know, it’s elected for the—it’s the Danish selection for the Academy Awards. So some—it becomes a bit of a sport, you know? People root for the Danish film. But I’m really hoping—you know, I’ve been touring with the film at high schools here in Denmark. And it’s been really amazing to see how, especially the young people, really take it in and really can relate to his story. I think a lot of them because, you know, refugee stories are often just told in headlines and just, you know, very black and white. So to actually see a story about a man who, yes, is a refugee but, you know, he’s so much more. To see a nuanced portrait of a refugee really opens up people’s hearts. So I hope—some people have seen it. And I hope because of all the buzz that’s going on with the film now, I hope more people will see it and that it will stir the hearts of more people.

RICHARD: Palwasha, what would you like policymakers in the U.S. and Europe, and in all those countries that were part of the coalition that was in Afghanistan, what would you like them to know about the refugee experience and what’s happening to Afghans who are afraid in Afghanistan today, are in hiding today or, you know, fleeing?

HASSAN: I think there are much to say to that. First of all, in engaging in conflict countries like Afghanistan, it really needs very responsible decisions, which first of all not to create a situation where people flee their own country. That has been a big mistake in the part of what happened in Afghanistan. Maybe a little bit responsible and a delayed withdrawal would have resulted in a different way, or if the peace process had been taken with care, and if it was centered around Afghan safety, we all would have been a different place.

Second, as Jonas has referred to this, that many of Afghan even in United States, we don’t know our status. We are in a different visa which is sort of temporary. And but it’s difficult for many Afghans like me, who how many times we can live in this kind of uncertainty? For years we give—try to go back in our country to live a dignified life, and to help things stand on their own. But then we lost everything in a moment, and we are now in a different country. And we need to have at least satisfaction that we are here and now we can start the struggle—maybe too late—but still to live in a condition that we know that we will not be turned back for another restart. It will be too much for one person or several person in my country who has been this traumatic experience. It’s over four decades for some of us, as it was for Amin and maybe his family who is going through this.

So this is not, like, one episode. This is long war. And people need a dignified living condition. We have all been received well, but I think this whole process of going through military bases, staying there, it was one of the difficult stripping out your dignity from you. Like you—the basic privacy doesn’t exist, where families are all put in military places together. It looks like a prison, because you are not allowed to get out of that place. And so I think there is a lot of need of improvement in that conditions because it’s enough that those people who are leaving their home not in a good condition, and then those people who are seeing some of the clips from Afghanistan news entering the airport, and inside the airport. It hasn’t been a normal journey. Explosion has happened. We had people being injured, killed just entering that space.

And then you go to a country where you stay for over two or three months in a base with the very limited support? It is—it is adding up to your anxiety, to your situation. I don’t want to sound so unthankful. I am so indebted to so many good and warm wishes and support that people have shown me. But I think there is a mixed reality into the situation of refugees here in the United States as well. I think refugees need their case been seen more as a human and not aliens from other countries. A lot of things, I think we are in a world that we should see our shared values of so many things, despite of maybe our passports, and culture. And that we are one human being. We need the same sort of living and sharing in our home, in our host countries.

RICHARD: That’s very well-said, Palwasha. In a moment we will turn to the Council’s members for them to ask their questions. One of the things Palwasha mentioned was how people came under—from Afghanistan to the United States last summer under different legal statuses. One is special immigrant visa for soldiers and people who worked closely with U.S. forces and the embassy. There’s also humanitarian parole, which is a very special and rarely used status that has raised a lot of questions about how long do those folks stay, and what sort of permission do they have, and what can they do living now in the U.S.? And of course, there’s also the normal refugee program that unfortunately moves very slowly to bring people to the U.S. So it’s not really an emergency rescue program. So all of these sort of different statuses were used to bring people in in this emergency past summer, and yet there are so many people who are still in Afghanistan or in nearby countries and would like to get to safety.

Nazanin, I want to ask you one quick question before we turn to our members, which is—picks up on something you had mentioned before about artists. What role do you feel artists, like Jonas, can play in this debate over refugees and migrants?

ASH: I mean, the incredible—the incredible reveal and leadership role that he and Amin have played in bringing these stories to life and telling them through such a personal lens. One of the things that struck me about your film, Jonas, is you don’t shy away from irregular means of Amin and his family’s escape, right? And you also really reveal the danger and vulnerability for them that they lived with for years, and the circumstances under which they were able to find safety, including total separation from his family, acting as if his family was dead, being raised by a foster family that, you know, separated from the thing that was most precious, and the only thing that had been most stable for him, right?

And it really made me think about the debates in our country around, you know, are these stories true? Do these people really need protection? You know, what if they’re not being truthful about their status? And, you know, the way you tell the story so personally really puts to rest all of those debates, and recognizes that we live in, you know, sort of a Willy Wonka world of, you know, bureaucracies and governments that aren’t coming at the issue from a—you know, from the protection and safety standpoint, but, like, what’s every way that we can close doors to protection, and the way in which that requires some of the most vulnerable populations in the world to contort themselves, to put themselves at risk to make decisions that rend them from the supports that they have, you know, even as they’re leaving everything behind and trying to find a way to rebuild and be safe and thrive. So I think your ability to tell that story below the level of political and policy debates, and the toxicity there, and reach people directly is so important. It’s really moving.

RASMUSSEN: Thank you.

RICHARD: At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. The Council on Foreign Relations operator will remind you how to join the question queue.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Elisa Massimino.

Q: Hi. This is Elisa. Can you hear me OK?

RICHARD: We sure can, Elisa. Thanks for calling—or, asking.

Q: And, Jonas, I just want to thank you so much for making this film. I’m at the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown Law School, where we’re actually launching the semester film series on storytelling for social change. So the first question I want to ask is how can we arrange for a screening? Because I think more people need to see this film. I’ve spent most of my career working on refugee issues and interviewing refugees. And I have to say that this is one of the most accurate films that I’ve ever seen depicting the refugee experience, the complicated narrative of the refugee experience.

And it’s—I think, in a way, it’s the animation that allowed for a certain kind of intimacy, which to me seem, in a way, backwards. But I thought that choice which, as you explained, had a lot to do with making it comfortable for Amin. But I think what it also does is allow the audience to really experience a level of intimacy that people sometimes aren’t comfortable with when they’re viewing, you know, the people themselves who have gone through this. So I just wanted to thank you for that. But really I wanted to hear more about how we can encourage people to see this film, where can people see it? And I think it has a huge power to change how people view the refugee experience.

I wanted to underscore something that Nazanin said about the complicated nature. A lot of people who want to help refugees have a refugee narrative in their head. It’s very simple. It’s very clean. It’s very—it can be put into a box. And I think it’s very important, the aspect of this film. And also we haven’t talked about the complicating nature of Amin’s sexual identity and how that magnified the feeling of otherness that all refugees tend to feel. So there are a lot of things I hope you can maybe just pick up on and comment on there. Thank you.

RICHARD: Jonas.

RASMUSSEN: Thank you so much for your beautiful words. The film will be out widely in the U.S. on the 28th of January, I think. And then it will be in cinemas all over the country, and then hopefully it will go out to VOD and streaming later on. So it should be available for everybody through this year, at least. And I think—you know, to me I think the fact that it is animation also helps to take in the story. Because, you know, a lot of people—we’re all exposed to so many refugee stories in the media all the time. And the fact that you kind of have this filter, that you don’t have to relate to a physical human face but a cartoon or a drawing, I think it makes you listen more. And you actually listen to the story. But of course, also it is because of the friendship, because it’s told from the inside of a friendship. And you, as the audience, are invited to be me for eight-four minutes, be my ears. Because that’s what I really was in this process. I was just listening to him telling his story. And because he told it to me, of course, he tells is another way than he would do to someone who didn’t know him as well.

And then used this technique in interviews that—I have a background in radio. And I use this technique in interviews. That’s why he’s laying down and he has his eyes closed and he talks in the present tense, because in radio you don’t have an image so you need your subject to be really descriptive in the way they talk. So by laying down, closing your eyes, talking in the present tense you kind of—he gets back into the specific memories and the specific situations. And I start every memory, I would start out asking him to describe the location, you know, what he saw. So in the beginning of the film, when he’s in his childhood home in the garden, I would ask him to describe the garden. What plants were there? What did the house look like? And all these things, which would give us a lot of stuff for the animators to work on, but also it really brought him back into the situation and created a lot of presence in the way he talked. I hope that was an answer for all the questions.

RICHARD: Kayla, can we get another question from a member?

OPERATOR: Yes. We’ll take the next question from Ryan Kaminski.

Q: Hi, everybody. Thank you so much to CFR for convening this discussion. And I really enjoyed the film. And just I have two questions, but just wanted to say to Jonas, in addition to the film just being fantastic and very moving, I thought the attention to detail was really excellent. You know, from Amin kind of touching his gold necklace every time he was maybe a little nervous or anxious, to that kind of consultation when they were at that—when they were at the house, and one of the characters was discussing the hazelnuts and he was playing with the cat. It was just—you know, the attention to detail was really moving.

My two questions are really for anyone in the panel. You know, one is avoiding this kind of instrumentalization of refugees. You know, this came up during the scene with the cruise ship when, you know, folks were kind of snapping shots of the boat. And then when Amin was in the asylum centers, I think the journalists came and left, and nothing really happened. So how do you thread that needle between raising essential awareness but really avoiding instrumentalization? And the second question is, how do we really make sure that in humanitarian settings we have really strong LGBTQI+ responses and services?

I was really curious in the scene in Denmark, you know, when he asked about the possibility of getting medicine, you know, what really was the response from that worker? And, you know, was it—you know, did he have access to a conversation and contact setting that really, you know, kind of addressed this issue? Or was that person just not really sure how to respond to that question? Thank you so much. I’m from USAID. Really appreciate it.

RICHARD: Jonas, could you kick off the answers? Anything that you’d like to address in those series of questions? And then I’m going to call on Nazanin and Palwasha to add anything if they’d like.

RASMUSSEN: Yeah. Maybe I can just answer to the last part, of how—you know, when Amin came out, and this was back in the ’90s. And I don’t think that people at—(inaudible)—was very well-educated enough to tackle, you know, LGBTQ refugee coming in and coming out. So she just told him that you couldn’t get medicine, and it was something you had to live with, and that he kind of had to figure out himself how to deal with it. So it was really a struggle for him in the beginning when he was here to figure out how to deal with it, because he had thought that he could kind of get some medicine and then magically it would be—it would be gone. So it took a while. And he didn’t get supported very well. And I think still—now there are various organizations here that can kind of help LGBTQ refugees here. But it could still be better.

RICHARD: Nazanin, do you care to add anything?

ASH: I think I would just add—I think I would just double down on what Jonas has shared, is that there are some emerging, you know, groups and nonprofits and technical expertise in providing for the needs of LGBTQ refugees. But it remains small. It remains dispersed. It hasn’t been regularized or routinized. I think one of the really important things that the Biden administration has done is create a P-2 program for LGBTQ refugees. And I think that sends a really important signal to regularizing the—regularizing the pathway and the recognition of the unique needs and the unique vulnerabilities of LGBTQ refugees, and hope that more nations join in creating those kinds of specialized pathways and programs.

RICHARD: Palwasha, do you agree with Ryan that the drawings of the background of this film was so carefully done? Did you recognize Afghanistan in some of the early scenes when the family is still there?

HASSAN: I think it was very detailed. And it could bring me a lot of memories of our own household and places. I just would say well done.

RICHARD: Kayla, can you give us our next question?

OPERATOR: Yes. We’ll take the next question from Heather Wild.

Q: Thank you all so much. Hi, Anne. It’s great to see you again. Heather Wild-Gonzalez Rubio. I am—I work for the Department of State.

I used to work for Anne when she was assistant secretary. I worked in PRM. I was on the Syria team. So I have in—in my career I’ve worked on refugee issues many times, and I am actually the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor who was a refugee who ended up in Colombia, of all places, after many, many, many countries. Ending up in a country she never thought she would go to. And I am the daughter of immigrants. And here I am in the United States, working for the U.S. Department of State, and I’ve worked on refugee issues. So it’s kind of a full-circle thing for me.

I give that context because I have many—I’ve watched many movies, and I definitely have been very curious on a personal note and professional note on the topic of how refugees are portrayed in the media. And so I think this was a beautiful film. It was a very unique film to see in animation. So thank you for that. That was very beautiful. And I appreciate that you could share that with us. I have a very unique question. I am—I have in my personal as well as in professional capacity been working on the Afghan evac. Now this question is a—and I’m making this very clear—in a personal capacity question.

But I would love to hear, especially Palwa, what you think from your experience as a refugee. Just last night I was having a conversation with a family that I have been able to help to get out of Afghanistan. They’re now in the humanitarian city in Abu Dhabi. And they are—one of the family members is a P-1. And the rest of the family members, they don’t qualify to come with him under the P-1 status. They would only qualify, as Anne said, for a very seldomly used status, which is the humanitarian parole.

So a couple months ago I needed to have a very difficult conversation with them, of exploring different options because they had it in their mind that they were only going to be able to come to the United States. So last night after reaching out to other contacts that he has worked with in European countries, a European country—I won’t say which one—is offering him and his family asylum there. And they’re willing to take them. But in his mind, he had completely imagined just coming to the United States and is very heartbroken about the idea of going to this other country. And I know this—I explained to him that—you know, I tried to do as much as I can to comfort.

So I was wondering, in your experience as a refugee, how would you try to talk to an individual who is dealing with this idea of where they envisioned their home to be and where they may most likely end up? Which very much ties into this film, and how, you know, this young man was looking for a home, even from what—even as a child. So if you could just speak to that. Thank you all so much for your words today.

RICHARD: Palwasha.

HASSAN: Yeah. Thank you. I think it’s very complex. And I think this film is also going into that sort of details. Because when you—I personally didn’t know, for instance, where I’m going when I left my country. Even when I was in the plane I was asking where we were going—(laughs)—because for me, it was, like, OK, we are just getting out of this problem. But for many people, like, if you think ideally this is a situation that you want, going to a country you also want to have a living there. And you need your network, people you know. So it is not just going from one place to other, who is receiving you. And for this person, I understand that probably he has his own network and family or maybe friends who are in United States. And probably he and his family can get help from them to establish in the new community. And maybe another European country or other looks a strange place.

And then the reality is also so much relational. So one person’s truth is not the same as other person is receiving. So a lot of time I would say many refugee, like Amin, would not say the truth people will not entertain or understand his truth. In Afghan society, for instance, that the concept of family is so different. It was in my case. In United States, your family is your husband and children. But in my culture, your mother is your family, whoever living in that environment in one family, we help very extended family. And then if you’re living in one home, definitely they are your family. So in my five people that we constitute, we even have a different surnames. We are not husband and wife and children, but we’re one family. And I was insisting, this is my family. But this was not a family for the laws of United States.

But for me, it was important to say the truth, that, OK, this is my family, but this is the relation we have. It’s not exactly what constitute U.S. law. But I will stick with my reality. And I think we have to introduce that sort of—it’s maybe so idealistic, but we have to make our laws flexible and adapting to different realities, because refugees is not American when they are entering your country. They are coming with a different concept of family, reality. And if you don’t make it like that, you will be only receiving lies and make up stories, and you will never able to help the person in that way.

I’m just imagining if Amin told truth, would he have been accepted in that country? Would he not be sent back to Russia, where he was living? If he had a chance to tell the truth, he would have had that love and affection from his family who was in Sweden. But that was not the case. He could have ended up back in Russia. And we saw what was happening there. So sometimes people are not telling the truth. That is the problem. And I’m glad that your friend has a chance to speak to you at least. I think eventually they will accept the reality. I think one of the thing which is missing, the counseling with those who are all supposed to come to a new country, a new place, is very much needed. And there are a lot of volunteers among who have already been here.

I would be happy, for instance, to talk to this family and speak to them on certain issue for them to understand better, if that is the case that I can help with. And I’m sure there are many other ways. We need to create also that psychological needs that people have, that understanding new realities and accommodating them. It takes a little while for many new refugees. And that is a very human need, I think, and need to be considered in this whole support that we are only thinking that material need is not way to attend to the needs of refugees.

RICHARD: Thank you very much, Palwasha, for such a thoughtful answer. And thank you, Heather, for your thoughtful question.

Kayla, can we get another question from a member?

OPERATOR: Yes. We’ll take the next question from Mary Dudziak.

Q: Hi. This is Mary Dudziak. I’m at Emory Law School.

And I have a question for Jonas. But, first, thank you so much for your incredibly powerful, extraordinary film. Can you share what Amin’s reaction to the film has been?

RASMUSSEN: Yes. Well, the first time he saw it, we saw it together, just the two of us. And it was a very emotional experience. And he became very emotional. But he also said that he didn’t know if he became emotional because it was a good film or just because it was, you know, his story on screen. So it took a while. (Inaudible)—had the premier at Sundance last year. And he saw how people reacted to it. And he was really amazed how people could relate to the story. I think he was a little concerned being, you know, both gay and a refugee, that people wouldn’t be able to relate. But they could. And it really meant a lot to him to see that people saw his story and got touched by it.

And also, just to comment on what you sort of said, Palwasha, like, the—if Amin had told his story when he arrived in Denmark, actually he would have been given asylum back then when he arrived. But just, you know, the human traffickers don’t know the Danish law. So they just provided him with this story. And he didn’t dare to tell the true story. So he had—so he lived with this for so many years, not knowing that he could actually have told his true story. And maybe he could have just gone to Sweden and lived with his family, but he didn’t dare to ask. And he—so all these years he kept it a secret. But he actually didn’t have to.

RICHARD: Kayla, is there time for another question?

OPERATOR: Sure. We can take another question from John Hauge.

Q: Hello. Thank you very much for the film.

I came in a little late in the beginning, you may have touched on this. But here in Washington, D.C., at Studio Theater there’s a show called Flight, which was created by the Glasgow theater troop Vox Motus, that tells the story of two brothers fleeing from Afghanistan. And it does it basically through more than 200 dioramas over forty-five minutes, almost like a graphic novel. And you sit there in a small booth, and the diorama rotates in front of you. And I was wondering if you had seen that, given the same subject matter.

RASMUSSEN: No, unfortunately I haven’t. No.

Q: OK. I would recommend it for everyone here in Washington. It’s only going to be there a very few days, yeah.

RICHARD: Thanks, John, for the recommendation. That sounds really interesting and also follows up on what we were talking about, about the role of artist in all the different arts in trying to tell these stories.

Kayla, is there another member waiting to ask a question?

OPERATOR: Yes. We’ll take a question from Jody McBrien.

Q: Hi. Thank you very much. Jody McBrien. And I am a current CFR fellow.

I’ve been working on refugee issues for about twenty years now. And in the past few years, I’ve particularly started working with and learning more about LGBTQI refugees. And it has astounded me just how horrific the things they have had to deal with in proving that they’re refugees because they are persecuted because they’re LGBTQI, et cetera. And I so appreciate this film. It’s incredibly, incredibly important. And I think Nazanin, you said something about the Biden administration doing something in particular to help. Could you say more about that please?

ASH: Sure. The Biden administration has created a Priority 2 program for LGBTQI refugees that gives, you know, priority access to the refugee resettlement system for LGBTQI individuals.

RICHARD: You know, when I served at the State Department working on refugee issues, one of the lasting impressions I had from visiting refugees overseas was meeting in Nairobi with a group of refugees who had sent out from Uganda, where they were being persecuted because they were LGBTQ+. And they went and sought sanctuary in a refugee camp in Kenya, where they were then—continued to be harassed and molested and mistreated by fellow refugees and by the staff.

And for me, this was such a terrible situation because here we were supposed to be rescuing, giving sanctuary to these refugees in this camp, but actually their dangers continued in this supposed place of sanctuary. And so I’ve never forgotten that. And I am very grateful to groups like HIAS and ORAM that have specialized in really trying to teach the whole community of people who care about refugees how to be open to refugees approaching who—someone looking for help who are LGBTQI, et cetera.

Jonas, did you want to add something?

RASMUSSEN: No.

RICHARD: No? OK.

It’s 1:57 p.m. I think we’re going to have to wrap up. I want to thank you all for joining today’s virtual meeting. Please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. But who cares about the video of today’s meeting? We really all ought to watch the film, and watch it again, and get our friends to watch it now that it’s going to be in U.S. theaters, because it’s really a magnificent story—a tough story to tell, but really beautifully done. So we all congratulate you, Jonas. And thank you all for tuning in to hear more about this film from the filmmaker, the director, and our other panelists, Nazanin Ash and Palwasha Hassan. Thanks very much.

RASMUSSEN: Thank you.

HASSAN: Thank you.

ASH: To the audience, thank you.

(END)

 

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