Guilderland filmmaker returns to show film about risks refugees face

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
“The right to think does not exist in Syria,” Sana Mustafa of Syria, right, said on Tuesday as she talked about her own family — her father kidnapped by the government, her mother and sisters and herself all living in different countries — after a showing at the Guilderland Public Library of the film “8 Borders 8 Days” by Amanda Bailly, at center. At left is discussion moderator Paul Grondahl, director of the Writers’ Institute at the University at Albany.

GUILDERLAND — Amanda Bailly — a 2006 graduate of Guilderland High School now living in the Middle East — returned home this week for a free showing and discussion of her film, “8 Borders 8 Days,” which tracks the efforts of a single Syrian mother and her two children to travel to freedom in Europe.

Bailly has been living in Beirut, Lebanon for the last two years and has made a number of short films for human-rights organizations.

When she first met Sham, the woman who would become the subject of “8 Borders,” Bailly didn’t expect to make an hour-long film about her. She told the audience of about 120 gathered at the Guilderland Public Library Tuesday night that she expected to “film a quick story about her.”

She was drawn to Sham, whom she met in Beirut, because she could immediately tell that Sham was a remarkable woman: In an area crowded with refugees all waiting for papers that would allow them to continue on their journey, Sham alone would march with her children up to police officers or United Nations representatives and demand that they help her.

After 15 months of waiting for papers that would allow her to resettle in the United States, Bailly said, Sham grew tired of waiting and “took the safest possible option,” which was to crowd with 40 or 50 others onto an inflatable raft that would carry her and her children to Greece, from where she hoped to continue their journey.

None of the three knew how to swim, and in cell-phone video taken inside the raft by Sham’s son and included in the film, Sham says, “This is like suicide.”  

Bailly wound up accompanying Sham and her two children on their journey, including nighttime border crossings in the dark, sleeping on sodden ground beneath rain-soaked tents, walking over treacherous muddy and hilly ground, and chaotic scenes of enormous crowds of refugees being shoved back by exasperated, angry soldiers with guns.

Bailly told the audience that help encountered along the way was from individuals and not organizations. “The U.N. was not there,” she said. “I think I saw them twice on this whole journey.”

Instead, she said, help came from individuals such as the professor in Hungary who made his students skip class for a month to go hand out water to refugees. “It’s that rudimentary,” she said.

Sham crossed the borders of the many countries she traveled through at the right time, Bailly said. “Two days after she crossed into Hungary, they closed that border.” Refugees then moved on to Croatia, she said, and as they moved, one border after another closed against them.

“Those were the good old days,” she said, referring wryly to the days when Syrian refugees could attempt the trek to Europe. “Now there is no longer an option. The borders are closed. There’s no path. You sit and wait for two years,” Bailly said, and there is no schooling for the children during that time.

This is not the life that she would have wanted for her children, Sham remarks at one point in the film, referring to the years of missing school. She hoped to make it up to them in the future, she said.

Sham was fleeing because she was the first person in her family to ever end a marriage, and she knew that her family did not support her idea of raising the children on her own. She had decided to leave the husband who beat and humiliated her and was repeatedly unfaithful. She left him without a word, taking the children to Lebanon.

The span of time shown in the film is just eight days, Bailly told The Enterprise, which is how long it took Sham to make the journey, in September 2015, from Lebanon to Turkey, to Greece, to Macedonia, to Serbia, to Hungary, to Austria, and then to Germany, where she is now living and the children are now in school — “finally,” Bailly says.

Bailly was asked by an audience member after the showing if she had felt vulnerable as a journalist while making the journey. Bailly answered that she never referred to herself as a journalist, and that she sometimes had to keep the camera more hidden than at other times, but that she wore a hoodie zipped up and kept a low profile and tried to blend in.

She said that she felt safer in Beirut than she does in the United States and explained that the crime rate for “person-on-person violence” is much lower there than here.

She was not afraid of the strangers surrounding her on the trek, she said, because “the Syrian people are one of the most welcoming people I’ve met in my life.”

At one point, when she became separated from Sham while crossing a border on foot, another family saw her and asked her to walk with them, so that she wouldn’t be alone.

“And we are still in touch, two years later,” she said of that family.

She added, too, that she was always aware of the one sharp difference between herself and the refugees, which was, she said, that she “could have walked away at any time, and that’s privilege.”

One of the more dangerous situations she encountered, Bailly said, involved police. Often, she said, police were not happy to be filmed. “There’s a scene missing in Serbia,” she said, “because I was filming the police beating someone, and they dragged me behind a police vehicle and deleted my film.”

For the showing at the library, Bailly was joined by a different and equally resilient refugee, Sana Mustafa, 25, also from Syria. Mustafa said, before the showing, “When we flee, it doesn’t end. When we flee, it starts.”

Mustafa, who took part with Bailly in the discussion, comes from a family that had taken part in many peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, she said. She happened to be in the United States on a month-long study program when her father was kidnapped by the government and taken from their home; the family has never seen or heard from him since.

She could not return as planned, after that, and became a refugee in the U.S., where she had “no money, literally, nothing, and knew one person.” She survived by moving among the couches of nine strangers for months on end. She was accepted on a scholarship to Bard College, from which she has since graduated with a degree in political science.

Mustafa’s mother and two sisters fled their home for Turkey. An application by her mother and her younger sister to join her in the U.S. was turned down this March and the two now have “no plans.” Living as a refugee in Turkey “essentially means stagnation,” Bailly wrote in an email. Mustafa’s older sister was given asylum in Germany “due to increase risk to her,” Bailly wrote, adding that she could not give further details.

Mustafa has started a consulting company that works on refugee issues in the U.S.

In the audience at the showing were Bailly’s parents, Lee Lounsbury and Jack Bailly. Lounsbury said that the first time they saw the film, “It kind of freaked us out a little bit,” even though they had been in contact with their daughter as she traveled, and they knew, more or less, what she was doing.

“I can’t tell you we knew every piece of it,” her mother said. Her father added, “Probably just as well.”

Bailly has been “independent from a young age, and she’s trained us,” her mother said, citing a trip to Paris in eighth grade and another to China during high school.

Bailly told The Enterprise that one of the high-school teachers whose classes most influenced her was in the audience at the library. She was referring to 10th-grade English teacher Brenna Autrey, who told The Enterprise it was the first time she had seen the film and it had given her goosebumps. Autrey said that Bailly and many of her fellow students from the class of 2006 were a vivacious, outgoing, and bright group. She has been friends with Bailly for years on Facebook, she said, and knew generally that she was making a film, but had no idea how intense and affecting it would turn out to be.

The two other teachers that influenced her, Bailly said, were John Mapstone and Gary Gnirrep, whom she had for a ninth-grade class that doesn’t exist any more — it was called 9X, she said, and was a “fusion of English and history that was so interactive; you learned so much about other cultures.”

The day before the library showing, she showed the film to Mapstone and Gnirrep’s classes.

Asked how the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has affected the refugees she herself has met, Bailly said, “Trump has made a climate of fear and uncertainty for so many people.”

But, she said, it’s not all bad. That same fear and uncertainty has had the effect of mobilizing and energizing people.

She said the crowd at the library had been about 120 and added, “If I had made this film before Trump had been elected, I probably would have had the first three rows filled.”

For the rest of this year, Bailly plans to travel with the film, and with people who can speak from their own experience as refugees. She plans to focus on traveling to communities, she said, where there are large numbers of refugees and where the atmosphere is not welcoming toward them.


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