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Syrian Refugee Crisis in Spotlight at Sundance, Has Local Ripples

Salt Lake City—In the spring of 2010, Kholoud Helmi was among thousands of Syrians who began peacefully protesting in an effort to gain the right of free speech, the right of safety in their own homes.

As the current war and refugee crisis in the region can attest, their requests were not granted.

Syria and its refugees are hot topics among documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival. Filmmakers and subjects of three of the five features gathered to comment on their work and the situation at the World Trade Center Thought Leader Symposium. The panelists all spoke of their desire to share what is happening in the war-torn region, especially since information has largely been banned or censored.

Derek Miller, CEO of World Trade Center Utah, said while Syria is half a world away, the crisis has implications—including trade and commerce—that reverberate strongly in the Beehive state. The crisis’ effects on Europe impacts Utah because of the strong trade ties with the countries within the continent. Beyond that, Miller said, Utah has had a history of welcoming refugees from many regions with open arms, and the organization wanted to call attention to the current crisis and what can be done here to help by featuring the filmmakers and subjects who have experienced conditions firsthand.

“Our message today is to do your part by hiring refugees, training refugees, going to job fairs,” he said. “I think Utahns in general are very compassionate, and that’s a way to put action with compassion.”

Helmi is one of the people featured in Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Cries from Syria.” She began work on an underground newspaper, which would be typed up on people’s personal computers and printed on their home printers. The printed pages would then be deposited in a garbage bag in a pre-arranged location, and then picked up and distributed by another member of the organization. Though she has been forced to flee from Syria, Helmi still helps spread information about the conditions there from her home in Turkey, as relayed to her by reporters from every province in the country.

“I’ve been asked many times why I [began working with the newspaper]. I do not know. I only know I had a dream. I wanted to make known what was happening,” she said.

Aziz, who was referred to only by his first name, was featured in Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts,” and is also an active part of an underground press—a magazine started Raqqa, Syria. In the magazine, he said, he and the others involved tried to focus on not only news of what was happening, but how it affected people’s day to day lives. They also have tried to appealed to children with a section for younger Syrians, who are at risk of being recruited and indoctrinated by ISIS.

Heineman said given the success ISIS has had with spreading their message with social media and video, the fact that Aziz and his colleagues were trying to combat that propaganda with their own message using many of the same techniques was a compelling story.

“I think this group is fascinating because they realized they needed to counter ISIS using the same mediums,” he said. “They needed to tell people what ISIS was saying was wrong.”

Aziz’s group, like Helmi’s, is now separated but continues its work. One group still operating within Syria gathers and encrypts information to be passed to people in Turkey and Germany for dissemination.

With such violence and instability in Syria—Helmi recalls being forced from her hometown of about 150,000 near Damascus in an event that left only 8,000 living in the city, 1,000 of whom were killed over the course of three nights—it’s no wonder that many are fleeing for their lives. The reception of the rest of the world has been mixed.

Helmi noted that most Syrians want to return to their home—or, that is, the home they remember, or believe Syria can be. In many regions, refugees have been spurned or worse.

“I stay in Turkey with a resident permit, because I couldn’t face being [called] a refugee,” she said. “If you face a Syrian refugee, accept them, or just treat them like yourself. In many places, they’re treated like animals.”

Tonislav Hristov began his project, “The Good Postman,” after seeing a photo of a refugee father mourning his 2-1/2-year-old son on a Turkish seashore. Hristov, who had recently become a father himself, was disappointed in the ambivalent reaction in his Bulgarian hometown.

“I was really angry about the situation, so I said, ‘I need to do a film on it,'” he said.

He began looking for a story to tell one localized angle of the crisis. When talking to a group of eight elderly women giving food, water and candies to refugees passing through their tiny town on the Bulgaria-Turkey border, he met the town’s postman, who had just decided to run for mayor on the platform of encouraging refugees to stay and help revitalize the 38-person town. The opposing candidate, however, was running on a pro-Communist platform—a very common sentiment all across Eastern Europe, Hristov said.

Hristov said he hopes to bring a little perspective with his film in an effort to help those not directly affected by the situation gain more empathy for those who are. The way of the world means that any place could be the next Syria, he said, citing the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

“There is no safe place for someone,” he said. “So empathy is what you want to find in your heart, because you could get a leader who disagrees with someone and goes crazy. … Be kind.”

Afineevsky said he is hoping to teach viewers more about the situation as a whole—the war, he stresses, started because residents demanded the rights of freedom of expression and from oppression from its government that are taken for granted here.

“I want to educate people. I want to change people’s views and perceptions,” he said. “The founding fathers of the U.S. stood for these same basic human rights.”

Helmi said while the violence in Syria has caused much bloodshed, and that there was no end in sight, she was certain it was worth the price, and reiterated her commitment to the cause even if it cost her her life.

“For 60 years, we were afraid to open our mouths. Fathers were afraid of mothers, and mothers were afraid of sons and daughters, and sons and daughters were afraid of uncles. We have a well-known saying: ‘Even wolves have ears,'” she said. “I don’t want to live the fear of my mother. I don’t want to. That’s why I took to the streets in the Arab Spring.

“I don’t want [Syria’s] children to live like this.”