Sinan sessions - Part 2: They are strong people


What is the refugee journey like? We find out in our second session with documentary maker and journalist Sinan Can.

In his most recent documentary, the Class of Elias, Sinan Can attempts to track down the school friends of a boy from Aleppo, in the last remaining class photo he shares with them before they were dispersed by the start of conflict in the city.

The documentary vividly describes the impact of displacement on children - who according to the UNHCR make up around 40% of the refugees on the island of Lesvos at the moment – and 50% of refugees globally. We ask Sinan to talk about his experiences making the documentary, to find out more about the refugee journey.

The Journey

“I've seen the whole chain,” says Sinan. The first main landing pad, or mid-way “safe-countries” for people fleeing war, are countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan he explains. These are countries that people stay in before making onward journeys to Europe or elsewhere, either by waiting and making asylum applications directly for resettlement, or travelling themselves by land or sea.

In the Class of Elias, Sinan travels to different corners of the world to find and meet some of Elias's classmates, bringing to life the length of the refugee journey – the places people can end up in, why and how they end up there. 

One of the first people he connects with from the class, is Bahjat, now settled in Australia. With Elias living in the Netherlands, the two have not seen each other since saying goodbye in Lebanon, where they both were staying after leaving Syria. Being displaced so many times, is sometimes the worst aspect of the journey Sinan says. “The school mate of Elias who ended up in Australia, told me 'I said two times farewell to people I love. Once in Aleppo and once in Beirut.” he adds. “You feel that he's doing well in Australia, but it's still difficult.”

In a special moment in the documentary, Sinan reconnects Bahjat, who now lives in Australia, with Elias, his class friend from Syria. Source: BNNVARA/IDTV 

A New Debate

For Sinan, the most important part of giving a well-rounded perspective on the refugee journey is to “change minds and opinions” about their integration and arrival to Europe.

As we follow Elias reconnect with old friends, a journey which is often politicized, intangible and unknown to a wider audience, becomes an experience even the most hardened hearts can warm to.

Sinan had a clear target audience in mind when he made the documentary. “There is a whole debate about refugees, it's not always a nice and kind debate, because people generalise about people, criminalise them, put them in the corner,” Sinan tells us. “I try to reach that group that are difficult to reach.” he adds. “All of us have a class photo and are asking ourselves, how is this person, that one. If you understand that about the class photo, then maybe you change your view.”

Elias – now settled in the town of Enschede with his family – speaks Dutch and is doing well in school. Far from wanting to create empathy or sympathy, Sinan wants to change the portrayal of refugees as passive victims. To show them, like Elias and his family, getting on with life, despite the trauma of war.

“When we talk about refugees they are pathetic, helpless, and you degrade them by portraying them like that,” he argues. “They are strong people. They are trying to make something of their life. I wanted to show this stronger side of them to the Dutch.”

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