Refugees weather the angry Sea only to end up in a “hell hole”

Refugees weather the angry Sea only to end up in a “hell hole”

I’m done for, forget about me, take my kidneys, but please give my daughters a life.” ~Afghan father fleeing ISIS – from the film LIFE JACKET

Canadian documentary LIFE JACKET nominated for International Christian Film Festival awards this weekend in Miami. 

They came in droves to find refuge from their war-torn, violent, oppressive countries – and the terrorists and bombs that relentlessly terrorized them day and night. Only to find, once on shore, their nightmare was only beginning.

As much as 80 people huddled together in a single dingy.

Crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey by way of other Arab countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran. An older man from Afghanistan with kind, wise, eyes explains his wife’s leg injury after a bomb landed near their home. Through tears, he says that his children are still in Afghanistan; his eyes flood and he turns away from the camera.

They all came unprepared.

The smugglers they paid with their life savings arriving in the night, giving them only minutes to flee everything they had built up until that point.

Eventually they land on the island of Lesvos in Greece. A consultant with Beyond Borders Marg L says, “they are zombie like.”

Dr. Maher Mansour, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, reflects on the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) these adults and children will experience for the rest of their lives.

The still images moving throughout the film reveal a terror few can imagine as they reach the shoreline.

More pictures show how the raging sea ravaged and spit out onto its shores their shoes, socks, coats, sweaters, backpacks, LIFE JACKETS, even some of their loved ones – while others were lost to its deep.

On this tiny island paradise, they line the streets across from cafes and restaurants – women, men, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, babies, toddlers, teenagers – their expressionless faces showing their shock after their harrowing experience. 

Residents and shop owners offer them food. 

But their end journey to paradise becomes a double-edged sword as they eventually land in a former military base camp called Moria. 

It is not too strong to call this place a “hell hole.” 

As more refugees flood onto the shore – the world didn’t care, but the people on this tiny island did, and so do the teachers and volunteers of Beyond Borders, and Ms. Faten Alfaraj, who tells their stories in this award-winning documentary Life Jacket.

In Arabic, the family name Alfaraj means: The one who brings relief.

Faten AlFaraj’s film is nominated for two awards at the International Christian Film Festival – Best Director and Most Creative Documentary. The awards event takes place in Miami on May 22, where one of the jury members is Roma Downey. 

Life Jacket is also premiering in London and Egypt simultaneously – from May 25 to 28 and was just screened in Sweden to glowing accolades.

Ms. Alfaraj’s film also won Best Documentary in 2020 at the Canadian International Faith and Family Film Festival.

Years of her hard work paying off in big ways, “it’s all to God’s glory,” she says.

The film takes us on a journey from the refugees arrival, to camp Moria and what goes on inside what’s described as the world’s worst refugee camp.

It is both fitting and poetic (Ms. AlFaraj is from Jordan), that HRH Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan and his wife Princess Rym al-Ali make an appearance near the end of the film. Their words summing up why everyone needs to see it, and why we need to reach out to people beyond our borders. Princess Rym says, “Education is like a life jacket, that can help refugees and asylum seekers arrive on the shores of a better and brighter tomorrow, for themselves, and for the rest of the world, too. But fundamentally – education is a right.” Prince Ali Bin Hussein says, “We owe it to future generations Let’s not fail the world by failing the asylum seekers and refugees. They deserve a hope and a future.”

Full disclosure, Faten AlFaraj of Jordan is a dear friend of mine, and fellow producer here on Context Beyond the Headlines, and I had the opportunity to do a Q&A with her about her film before Maggie John and I interview Faten next week on BEYOND THE HEADLINES podcast, which we’ll post on our YouTube channel.

Q & A – Faten AlFaraj, filmmaker

Susan Ponting: I guess you are pretty excited about the awards?

Faten Alfaraj: Yes, I’m so excited and feel blessed to be nominated for those two great categories: Best Director and Most Creative Documentary.

SP: How long did you work on this film?

FA: The film took more than two years of work — from the concept and development phase until it was ready to be submitted to festivals. 

SP: What were your immediate thoughts, feelings, and sensations once you got to Lesvos?

FA: When I reached Lesvos, and while still on the airplane, I was looking down and saw this tiny island and thought, how can such a small island have all those numbers of refugees that I heard of and read about? 

I was overwhelmed with the number of refugees I saw and met everywhere I went and the amount of pain and burden on their faces. But at the same time, you can’t help but have a smile on your face when you see the little children playing and simply being children. You can’t help but feel an overwhelming need to love them and help them feel heard and loved.

SP: Tell us about the children and adults. Although their faces are so beautiful, they look crestfallen. But still, there is a deep love and wisdom mixed with despair in their eyes.

FA: The children are beautiful and full of life and curiosity. They didn’t live the normal childhood we all had, but somehow they are still happy and hopeful. But the teenagers and adults, on the other hand, you can see and feel that they are hopeless, tired, and burdened with what tomorrow holds. 

SP: As a Christian and a mother, how has the making of this film impacted you?

FA: To count our blessings, and don’t take things for granted – it could be me at any time or day. To always love and welcome the strangers – because we were strangers a few years ago when we immigrated to Canada. And to use our voices to speak for these refugees and fight for their rights.

SP: How does it feel to see your baby be born and go out into the world?

FA: I am so humbled, honoured, and blessed to have people watch Life Jacket, and most importantly, to hear the voices of those refugees who trusted me with their stories. 

SP: Your press package shows a frightening picture of what looks like many hundreds of life jackets washed up on shore. Can you explain why you chose the name “Life Jacket” for your film?

FA: That location of that photo is called, The Life Jacket Graveyard. It’s simply a garbage dumpster for the city of Lesvos. When you go there and see the thousands and thousands of life jackets that were found on the shores of Lesvos dumped there, you can’t help but be burdened with the amount of pain and suffering those people went through to get to Lesvos and the stories that each jacket holds. From there came the film title, which speaks to and covers the three angles that the film highlights:

  • The actual life jackets that those refugees trusted to keep them safe to reach the shores of Greece and the stories that each life jacket tells,
  • Education is another form of a life jacket that helps the refugees reach the shores of a better and brighter tomorrow, and;
  • God being our ultimate life jacket in this crazy and unpredictable life, which without Him we can’t survive.

SP: The migrants in your film crossed the Aegean Sea to the island of Lesvos. But that was just the beginning of their nightmare. Can you explain?

FA: Living life as a refugee – or a POC (Person of Concern), which the refugee and asylum seekers are called until they get their refugee status – is very hard in itself. Add to this, ending up in the worst refugee camp on earth, and you can imagine the fear and despair they are feeling. All the refugees I talked with said the same thing: “we ran away from war to end up in hell!”  

The camp is overpopulated, and it’s not safe. Each tent might have up to four families living in it. It’s especially not safe for women and children. Women are afraid to shower because they might get raped. If they all leave their tents, they might come and find their stuff stolen. There are gangs within the camp, drugs, and violence. People are angry and desperate.

SP: What memories are still with you from Greece?

FA: I’ll always remember the smiles of the kids. They just want to play and simply be kids, and have an eagerness to learn. Also, the sacrificial love that the parents have for their kids – you can see it in their eyes. They sacrificed so much to provide a safer – but unfortunately, not necessarily better – future for them. And also, the kind and welcoming Greek people who are helping in spite of their own needs.

SP: Have you stayed in touch with any of the migrants?

FA: Yes, I do! We chat often, and they continue to share their news and pictures with me. Their kids are growing up so fast! Some have moved and are settled in new countries, and some are still in Greece.

SP: How serious is the migrant crisis in our world?

FA: It’s very serious. The numbers are increasing, and the process is very slow. The pandemic has backlogged the system, while desperate people continue to wait. 

SP: Tell us about the people who worked with you on the film.

FA: The film was done in association with Beyond Borders, a wonderful organization that extends God’s love beyond borders and provides transformational education to refugees and displaced people. They were starting a pilot project in Lesvos to provide education to the refugees in Lesvos and the Moria Camp. It was a blessing to partner with them and see their heart and passion for reaching and providing the refugees with an education that is their right and not a privilege.

SP: What are you working on next?

FA: I’m preparing for my second documentary, and it will be speaking about some social justice issues and the unconscious biases we ALL have – every one of us.

SP: Looking back on the film, do you see God’s hands all over it and the people?

FA: Of course! It was, and is, all led and orchestrated by God. Since meeting with Beyond borders, to providing the funds and the crew who all donated their time and talent to make this film happen and even finding the refugees we interviewed and the footage we used. God’s hands were all over this project from the beginning, and He is still blessing us with all the awards and recognition the film is getting. Our prayer is that more people will watch the film and see God’s heart for those refugees.

SP: What can we Canadians do about the migrant crisis? How can we help so many people now going through so much in such a troubled world?

A: Welcome and love the stranger. Many think that these are bad people who are coming to take our jobs or live off of welfare or harm us. People need to understand that these people didn’t want to leave their countries in the first place. They are doctors and engineers who are willing to do anything to provide a safer future for their families. They just want to be welcomed and accepted. They deserve to have their basic human rights, be treated with respect and dignity, live in a safe place, and get the education they missed for years.



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