A filmmaker and teacher at the Ross School who traveled to Damascus, Syria last summer to film the testimonies of many Iraqi refugees living there. Among them was Firas Al-Kahlidi who just this week, relocated with his mother, Malkia, and brother, Ali, to Sag Harbor to begin a new life. They are currently staying with MaciakÂ — their “Anchor family” — in her North Haven home.
What led you to travel to Damascus to make this documentary?
I was sponsoring the human rights club at Ross. We were following the plight of the increasing number of refugees in the world. The students asked if I could bring someone to speak when we were commemorating national Human Rights Day. Through a local contact, last summer I met Alaa Majeed, an Iraqi reporter in New York who worked as a translator for foreign correspondents covering the war.
She said, ‘Have you been to the Middle East?’ She said, ‘Why not? Are you going to believe all this scary news? Are you afraid to go? Her brother had escaped from Baghdad and gone to Syria. She said, ‘Why not go and speak to him directly. You have summer off and you have a camera.’
She challenged me. I thought, why not? My daughter is away for the summer. Within two weeks I had a visa in hand.
Firas, who is fluent in English, acted as your translator and field producer while you were filming in Damascus. How did you meet him and what was it about him that impressed you?
I was filming refugees and living with Alaa’s family in an area populated by a high number of refugees. Firas was the roommate of Alaa’s brother.
As a documentary filmmaker I was drawn to the way he was expressing what is happening — with integrity, directness and his ability to explain and translate cultural differences and nuances. It’s a rare talent to understand the American western perspective and translate the nuances of slang, dialect and other very subtle things that maybe others couldn’t express. He was very respected in the community, this allowed me to gain trust from people I was interviewing and record very sensitive stories. He eventually became a main character in my film.
Can you briefly tell me Firas’ story? Why were he and his family forced to leave Baghdad?
Firas has a masters degree in environmental engineering so he was hired by Bechtel, who has many contracts in Iraq. He oversaw and trained other engineers including those from the U.S. He was happy in his job and was also teaching at the university.
As all Iraqis who work for foreign companies, he then was labeled a traitor working for the invaders, the occupiers. Though his job was to help the country, designing water systems and other projects to address environmental issues, still, once you work for a foreign group you are labeled by extremists.
They have a saying, ‘After the first two weeks working for a foreigner you have to constantly watch your back.’ Firas worked for them for two years. He was threatened and his family did everything to hide him.
The militant groups, who introduced themselves as Al Qaeda, murdered his younger brother two years ago. His parents got him out of Iraq into Syria, then the father was kidnapped seven months later. His mother and brother stayed in Baghdad until his body was found last September. Then they joined Firas in Damascus.
What was life like for the family in Damascus?
The Iraqi community is very mixed. They live in very small, cramped apartments, because the rental prices are going up. They have no permits to work, so many don’t get paid at the end of jobs. When they complain, employers threaten to report them to the police. They have no rights and are treated in a very disrespectful manner. They are spending their savings waiting for their resettlement cases and not knowing.
Firas tried to get into several other countries, but couldn’t. Right away when I met Firas I said, ‘Try to resettle in the U.S.’ His dream is to go to Penn State to finish his education. I said, ‘Whatever I can do to help you, use my name and address and my school.’ I said I would be more than willing to be involved.
Last Friday, the family arrived in the U.S. after processing through the offices of several organizations including the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees), Homeland Security and the International Organization for Migration. What was your role in helping to bring the family here?
I don’t know if it helped, but the Ross students and teachers sent many letters. We had a conference call with him in Damascus. He said, ‘Write a petition letter in support of my case.’ More than 200 signatures and letters were sent to the UNHCR. He said, ‘I’m not thinking of myself, I am head of my family. I’m responsible for my mom and brother. I can’t go anywhere else without them.’
Though Firas is fluent in English, his brother and mother don’t know the language. How are they, as a family, adapting to their new situation? What first impressions have they shared with you about the U.S. and what they left behind?
I think they feel very hopeful, but there is an anxiety. They are constantly thinking about people in Baghdad — family — and how are they going to get them out. They reconnected with some friends in the U.S. but have found that many Iraqi families they know are not doing well in this country. Many went back because of alienation they were sensing here, including one who was in Michigan — those who end up in places with no host family and are left to their own devices are having a hard time. One of Firas’ friends was working at a gas station and felt very depressed. My huge hope is this won’t happen to them and they will be able to integrate with the community —and I think this is a special community.
What are some of the biggest hurdles Firas and his brother and mother now face as new arrivals to this country?
For Malkia and Ali, it’s English. Connected to that will be finding work for them, in our community with its high living cost. In terms of their tolerance and acceptance of culture as Muslims, that’s not an issue. I went to a yoga class and Malkia wanted to come along. I’m also taking her to a gallery opening this weekend.
Because of Firas’ mastery of English and education he has a great chance of easily entering the job market on a higher level. There have been calls in terms of engineering jobs. But he does have a fear of how his skills will translate here.
What do they need most from the community now and how can people help the family adapt to their new life here?
People have been great, checking in, saying hello. I hope people just don’t abandon them, in the sense of thinking, ‘They’ve arrived, they’re fine.’ That’s why so many go back. The hard part is still ahead — help in terms of finding work, learning English and eventually finding a place to live.
With school about to start again next week, how will you share with the students of Ross the experience of bringing Firas and his family to Sag Harbor.
I’ll be continuing the human rights and media projects at the school. Nativewithoutanation.blogspot.com, is a site that basically teaches refugee kids and youth from fifth grade to early 20s to use the computer and connects them with American youths. My 11th, 8th and 5th grade classes have been chatting with them and I want to continue that so the kids can communicate.
There is hope we could bring more children to school here. The biggest tragedy is kids who are stuck there are not going to school. They are forced to work or if they go to school, they come back in tears after being labeled as traitors, cowards and being called awful names.