By Rose Masset
I'm not really sure why it's taken me so long to sit down and write down my thoughts about what I experienced in Greece. Maybe because I started to compare my journey and my experience to others, in a way that made me feel like my experience fell short in some way. I know that’s not true, I know my experience didn’t fall short. But I do know that I left feeling like my experience was one I would have a hard time describing. I’m a very emotional and sensitive person. I wear my heart on my sleeve. When I thought about what to expect from this trip, meeting refugees and filming their stories, I thought it was be easy for me to connect, to hone in on their emotions, feel their pain like I so easily can in my normal life. We got to Greece and the whole trip was a whirlwind, fast paced and non-stop, we literally skipped lunch most days, and were sometimes sleeping only a few hours a night, working well into the night, transferring footage to our hard drives, backing everything up to make sure we didn’t lose a moment of what we had captured that day.
This was my first time shooting a documentary. Never before had I sat anyone down, let alone a complete stranger and asked them to open up to me, to tell me their story, and let me film it for the world to see. It was a little uncomfortable at first, but once we got the hang of it, we didn't think twice of it. And for a while I didn't think twice of it. However, after some time, I started to notice I wasn't having the sort of reactions to these people's stories as I thought I would. It was harder for me to connect, to feel their pain in those moments, even when they were sitting right in front on my camera. I realized it probably had to do with the fact I was viewing these interviews, and pretty much the entire trip at this point, through my lens. Somewhere between making sure the sound was recording, the background and lighting were as aesthetically pleasing as could be, that we were asking all the right questions and that I was even recording this interview, I was forgetting to stop and remember why I was here in the first place. To connect.
When I realized what had been going on, it shook me a bit. I wanted to be there, to be as present as possible. After all, if I as a filmmaker was having a difficult time connecting, would my audience feel the same way?
It wasn't until we got to Lesvos that I remembered exactly what I was doing here. And more importantly, why. We had teamed up with the awesome individuals at House of Humanity to help distribute shoes to people living in a nearby squat. For anyone who doesn't know, a squat is usually an abandoned building or unoccupied space where refugees live. We piled into a van with about 15 large boxes of shoes of various sizes. Today's focus was on shoes for grown men and young girls. We pulled up and started unloading boxes, while people from the nearby building slowly began to emerge. They formed a big circle around us, waiting to see what would happen next. As we began distributing, we’d occasionally and regretfully have to tell men that we didn't have their size. They'd walk away disappointed, but it wasn't until a young boy, no older than 10 walked up to us, that everything changed. He politely asked for his size. He spoke in Farsi, and Yassamin translated. We didn't have his size, and we only had girl shoes. We asked if he wouldn't mind wearing girl shoes, and they'd be a little big? A moment of hesitation swept his face, and I could almost visibly see an ounce of his dignity fall away before he shyly replied, “yes, that would be okay.” I didn't speak his language but I could tell he was slightly embarrassed. The men nearby patted his back, he was such a good sport. He took the shoes, said thank you, smiled, and walked away.
And then it hit me. In that one moment, I had seen a tiny example of what that young boy, and every refugee has had to go through. Everything is chosen for them, they consistently have no choice. It takes away a certain freedom we take for granted everyday. The ability to choose. Even from the simplest of things.
You have to leave your home or else you and your family will die. You have no choice. You have to walk 30 miles to the next city or else you will be arrested. You have no choice. You have to get into the overcrowded boat or else you will be separated from your family. You have no choice. You have to eat this food. This is all we have. You have no choice. No choice. No option. No freedom. That isn't humanity. And yet, that is what being a refugee feels like. Every single day.
You would not believe what a lack of choice does to a person. We are drowned in choices in our world. What clothes should I buy, what restaurant should we eat at, what app should I download for my phone... but what happens when all those minute freedoms that we take for granted every single day are taken away. What happens to a person when we hand them a worn t- shirt and tell them, “this is all we have.” Or a plate of unsalted military grade overcooked rice and tell them, “this is all there is to eat.” “This is all we can give you.” “You have no choice.” How many times have we ever been presented with that situation? How many times have you ever been told, you have no choice? Imagine being told that on a daily basis. Imagine being stripped of the ability to choose. To have nothing.
You take away someone’s options of what to wear or what to eat. They suddenly become a number. A statistic. We cannot forget that they are people just like you and me. You cannot bunch them together because they are individuals. They are funny and smart and caring and loving. On such a deep level like you wouldn't even imagine. It's touching to be given tea or cookies from a woman who cannot even give her child a choice between what to wear or eat. They have nothing and yet they continue to give.
All of this became so clear to me in that one moment. Looking at that little boy’s face when we told him he’d only be given little girl shoes that were a size too big for him. This is why I am here. To remind people that it is more than bombs that dehumanizes a person. It’s more than death. It is the little things that make us feel human. The ability to pick out a pair of shoes. To be able to sit an a dinner table with your family. To order food off a menu. In a world where we are drowned in choices that it stops us sometimes from even wanting to make them at all, we have to remember that there are people out there that have been completely stripped of those freedoms. We cannot forget those people and we cannot take those freedoms for granted.
That is the story I hope to tell through the film. The resiliency of the people we met was astounding. After being stripped of every freedom they’ve ever known, and consistently denied and met with nothing but hatred, they persevere, and they push on. But there is hope. There are people working to try to make their lives a little better on the ground. Working to try to reinstill a sense of choice. Bringing humanity and dignity back into their lives. It inspires, and it does more than we can even imagine.