Hope Springs Eternal…for a Young Syrian in a Greek Refugee Camp

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man


Today many Christians are celebrating Easter, a holiday that honors the rebirth of Jesus Christ who was crucified on the cross two days earlier on Good Friday. Many other religions are also celebrating their annual Spring rites. Although I no longer espouse a particular religion (I was raised as a Lutheran), I did take a few moments this morning after brunch to reflect on the meaning of this holiday. To me, Spring rituals are all about hope.

The essay about the Refugee King of Greece in the New York Times Sunday Review section on April 16, 2017, reinforced for me how important it is to have hope, even when there doesn’t seem to be any. It is the story of a young Syrian refugee, Bassem Omar, who introduces himself to the Times reporter (Ashley Gilbertson) as the King of Ritsona. She goes on to say, “His Majesty, a 20-year-old refugee from Qamishli, Syria, offers a tour of his realm, and as we walk he’s greeted by friends of all ages.” As he moves amongst his “subjects” he reminds them that “I want to make Ritsona great again, and the people agreed.”

I am immediately struck by the ironic title he has given himself, and especially by his personal version of the now-famous Trump slogan, Make America Great Again, which Omar has now adapted to his own crusade to improve life for himself and his fellow refugees in the small village of Ritsona, 50 miles north of Athens. This is a young man who is well informed about global politics, and who has been able to give an ironic twist to his own circumstances using the words of the Leader of the Free World, Donald Trump. He is clearly a rebel with a cause and that is why I am so drawn to him.

After 13 attempts at escaping by using fake IDs and passports, only to be turned back by police at the airport and sent back to Ritsona, he has decided he can no longer make an effort to escape because if “I fail at this again, I will kill myself. I have to stop trying. So now I await the decision of relocation.” I read his words as meaning he no longer has hope he can escape, so he is readjusting his circumstances in order to continue to hold hope in his heart.

His story leads me to reflect on my own two grown children, now 33 and 35, for whom hope is also an essential part of their lives. My 35-year-old son was able to go to a wonderful college, travel abroad to Germany, and fashion himself a career in filmmaking over the past decade. He is filled with hope for his future endeavors; in the “indie” film business, hope is the staff of his life.

My daughter, about to turn 34, has had many setbacks in her life due to a series of five open-heart surgeries, but she remains hopeful that with a good deal of patience and perseverance, she, too, can have a fulfilling life. She is working hard toward that goal. Without hope, she would find it hard to go on. Even though their circumstances are challenging in different ways, both have had our support, financially, emotionally and intellectually, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. But what about those who don’t have any support?

As I turn my thoughts back to Bassem Oman, I am deeply touched by the poignancy of his young life and his ambitions.

As he surveys his kingdom of 700 refugees living within a barbed wire refugee camp, he remains satirically confident. He tells the reporter that in two days he will be celebrating his one-year anniversary in this camp. “‘We will host a royal party at Cafe Ritz to celebrate,” he says, referring to the distribution center. ‘You are welcome to come.'” These words represent the bravado of a young man who refuses to give up hope in the face of all odds.

I would like to put my arm around Bessem Omar’s shoulders, as I do with my own grown children, and tell him that I believe in him and his hope more than anything else I can think of. I will try to send a message of hope to him through the New York Times. If he cannot fulfill his dreams, what hope is there for humanity?

 

My Son, Matt, Is a Filmmaker: Watch ‘No Monsters in Berlin’ Online

About 17 years ago, the summer before he was about to start his freshman year at the School of Foreign Service in Georgetown, my son confided in me that he thought he wanted to go to film school instead. He is not an impulsive person so I knew he had given serious thought to what he said. I was sympathetic but I explained to him that it was too late to apply for film school for the fall semester. I advised him to go to the SFS and see how he felt during the year. If he still felt strongly about film school by midyear, he could then apply to film school.

As it turned out, one or two of his professors at the SFS discussed the issue with him and advised him not to leave Georgetown. One professor said that he would be getting a world class education at the SFS, and that graduates of film school were a “dime a dozen.” What you’ll gain by staying here, he told my son, is that you’ll have really good ideas for films you’ll want to make. Gradually he did become more invested in his studies at Georgetown and decided he would stay. He spent one summer during his college years at NYU film school, where he took his first official class in filmmaking since there weren’t any filmmaking classes at Georgetown.

Fast forward…during his senior year at Georgetown, he made a short film instead of writing a senior thesis.


His film, which he wrote, directed and filmed himself, won second place in the Georgetown Film Festival that year. It was his way of saying he still desired a career in filmmaking.

For the next decade he went from one job to another, developing skills that he felt would put him in a position to work on a film one day. First he did some freelance house painting. Then became an assistant to a carpenter. Next he spent a summer learning fine woodworking from a master of the craft. He eventually got a job with a NYC artist/entrepreneur who got him hired to help install some major art projects throughout NYC sponsored by a group called Creative Time. The venues included Governor’s Island, and the site of the soon-to-be High Line where he helped gut and prepare a former meat-packing plant, destined for demolition, for an art exhibition inside the plant.

He then moved from working on events, to installing equipment for a company that provides audio and visual programming for large-scale events in NYC such as the Museum of Natural History, and the Javits Center. During that time, he was continually developing his skills toward his goal of working on a film set.

He began to create his own short films, learning camera operator techniques on the job. A pivotal point in his development happened when he took a camera-operating class with a renowned Director of Photography.

There he began making contacts with people in the film business who gave him opportunities to work on films. Throughout this decade to support himself he was working all hours of the day and/or night, at venues throughout the five boroughs of NYC. He often had just a few hours notice to appear on a film set or a freelance job somewhere in NYC.

About a year and a half ago we took a family trip to Berlin. During that trip, he and his girlfriend cooked up a plan to make a short film about Syrian refugees who were seeking asylum in Berlin. They returned to Berlin six months later, and shot the film in a week! This short film, No Monsters in Berlin, was completed about six months ago and ever since then they have been working hard to get it accepted at various film festivals in the U.S. and Europe.

They succeeded in being accepted by the prestigious Newport Beach Film Festival in California, and the Manchester (England) Online Film Festival. He just emailed me to say that if enough people view his film online and vote for it, they have a chance of having the film shown live in NYC or Tokyo.

If you think you might be interested in supporting my son’s creative efforts in partnership with his girlfriend, who wrote the screenplay for the film, I urge you to visit the website below for the Manchester Online Festival, watch their 15-minute film and cast your vote. It will cost you $10 (sorry!), but obviously I think it’s worth it! And you will have done a very good deed since the film is about Syrian refugees finding their way in their new home, Berlin. Several of the actors and film crew are actual refugees.

The Manchester Festival URL is:

The website for the film itself is worth visiting:

http://www.nomonstersinberlin.com/

As you can tell, I’m a proud Mom, and of course I’d like to see his decade of hard work and discipline be affirmed by his peers, the community of filmmakers and critics. Thank you, Slicers, for your support!

(A photo of me with my son and daughter in our backyard.)

What Happens When Kids Can’t Go to School?

(This picture in the NY Times, Monday, September 26, shows migrant children being taught at the disused tobacco factory that serves as the Oraiokastro refugee camp in northern Greece. )

I get it. Most people living reasonably comfortable lives don’t want to rock the boat. I include myself. And many people are fiercely protective of their families and children which is usually a good thing. But today I read a story that made me sad and shook me out of my complacency.

The story in today’s New York Times, “Migrants in Their Schools? No Way, Some Greeks Say,” is about the Syrian children housed in makeshift refugee camps in northern Greece who were recently told they could attend the local schools, only to be rejected shortly thereafter by groups of parents fearful of outbreaks of contagious diseases and disruption of their way of life.

It is a very painful situation. As a former English as a Second Language teacher, I taught many immigrant students in my classroom over the course of 22 years mostly from Central and South America and southeastern Asia. I have witnessed firsthand the fear and anxiety of the new students who don’t speak the native language of their new country and many who may never have attended school. Their challenge, to adapt and learn to fit in and succeed academically, is almost insurmountable. Some thrive if they are lucky enough to have a supportive, intact family. Many others fall in with the wrong crowd by middle school and drop out by high school. Others struggle and barely manage to graduate.

My primary job was to teach English to the new immigrants, while simultaneously exposing them to the mainstream curriculum (since the arrival of the Common Core mandates). My other (unspoken) role was to help these students and their parents negotiate their entry years in the school system. I have walked the walk…and I can tell you it is very difficult. But the reason I became an ESL teacher is because I know that the best outcome for the children of immigrants is to become educated and fully participant in their new culture.  Without education there would be no assimilation. Kids want to belong.

The flip side of this story is that these children have nowhere else to go. It was not their decision to migrate to Europe and they are stuck in limbo until they are accepted, or until their parents move on either by choice or by expulsion.  In the meanwhile, the conditions they are living in are unsanitary and certainly not conducive to affording the children any kind of security or sense of well being.  None of them are attending local schools.

I do understand the health concerns of the local parents; I would have the same concerns.  And I do understand the fear of the local people who are afraid the newcomers will introduce values and practices that are alien to their own. But what I learned in the 22 plus years I was an ESL teacher is that first and foremost, children just want to be with other children. The natural forces of wanting to fit in and be accepted are very powerful and will speed up the integration of these children into the local culture.  Their parents want the best for their children, so they, too, will begin to conform to local customs, but probably more slowly. It will take time, but things will sort themselves out.

Eventually, everyone will have to compromise a bit.  The local people will feel less anxious when their health concerns are addressed.  The immigrant children will begin to learn the new language and bring home what they learn to their parents. The parents will feel more at ease when they feel more accepted.  There will be changes in the small villages that accommodate the newcomers; some of those changes will be unwelcome, but others will expand the outlook of the local inhabitants.  Some of the immigrant families will move on; others will stay.  Some, like the 9-year old girl, Mariya, who is featured in the article and wants to attend school in the nearby village, may be given the opportunity to  pursue their dreams: in her case, to become a lawyer “helping people.” That is, unless her parents decide to move on to Germany, or return to Syria. Or unless the villagers reject her.  Then…what will become of Mariya?