A heartwarming Christmas tale
Happy 2016 one and all. I hope you’ve all had a suitably celebratory time of it. We’re chuffed today cos we've just emailed our 270 Age of Stupid crew, cast and funders with details of their slice of the film’s profits from 2015. That’s the 7th of 10 annual share-outs done and dusted. And this year’s total, though small, was double last year’s; the long tail flicks with life yet. If you haven’t heard from us, but think you should have, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Without further ado, we’d like to share a heartwarming yuletide story of a dislocated family wandering the desert in search of shelter...
Back in 2006 we were filming Age of Stupid in Jordan, and you may remember we set up a sponsorship scheme for Iraqi refugee children in the city. 131 kids attended school that year thanks to Spanner’s generous friends & family paying their fees. (If you have a spare ten minutes I strongly recommend reading the kids’ thank you emails - I just started re-reading them looking for a quote and ended up reading the whole lot with tears streaming down my face. eg "It is the best thing to feel that there are other people feel to our suffering and trying to help us even if they live over the seas."). Anyway, the person we set the scheme up with was our local interpreter, Kulood Ali Nasir, who we'd only met a couple of weeks earlier, but who we'd become close to during some hairy moments, not least when we thought that a young man had been killed because of us (see the Making Of film here) and when we spent a tricky night together in a taxi at the Iraq-Jordan border (video here).
Since then, we’ve kept in touch with Kulood as she’s kindly picked up and passed on the share of the film's profits which go to our Iraqi child stars, Adnan and Jamila, each year. They're both doing well, by the way: Adnan is now 21, married and expecting his second child (!). He returned to live in Iraq recently, as did Jamila, who is also now married. Here’s some pics.
Back to Kulood’s story… Her family had ended up in Jordan after being forced to flee Iraq in 2004. Kulood had been working for a women's rights charity in Kut, Iraq, as well as helping to research a controversial newspaper column about women’s issues. She was invited to America to meet George Bush as part of an official delegation in which she represented the young women of Iraq. On her return, she was ambushed in the street outside her workplace and a gunfight took place. Thankfully, no bullets hit Kulood, but her close friend and mentor, Fern Holland - an American lawyer working with the women's groups - was killed. Kulood, her father and two sisters relocated to safety in Amman, but the rest of the family decided to stay in Iraq. One of her two brothers was killed there in 2007.
As the whole world knows only too well, the situation in the Middle East has been getting more and more difficult in the twelve years since Bush and Blair invaded Iraq. Kulood’s family has tried applying for asylum in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and the UK but, despite having a strong case, they’ve always been unsuccessful. The family returned to Iraq a year ago and then finally Kulood and one of her sisters, Teamim, decided to head for Europe. Their Dad was too frail to travel and so the third sister stayed behind with him. They packed a small rucksack each, collected all their cash, and travelled by plane from Iraq to Turkey on December 4th. In Turkey, they paid out most of their money for two tickets on the infamous refugee boats, and put their lives in the hands of the people smugglers. For seven days they waited because the seas were too rough. Finally, at midnight on December 11th, they headed to the beach. Over to Kulood:
"We put the float jacket on, but unfortunately my sister's jacket was not good enough and we could not fix it. They inflated the boat but the waves were so high. Two families decided not to go because one had a baby and the other had a disabled person in a wheelchair. The boat was so small for the number - more than 30 people of different nationalities - we were so squashed we couldn't feel our legs. The engine of the boat stopped working twice in the middle of the sea. We were floating on the water being rocked by the high waves. My sister fell asleep several times and I had to keep her awake each time in case if the boat sank. We stayed on the water for the whole night. At six in the morning we arrived quite near to the shore in Greece which was rocky. When we got there one man jump quickly so he pushed the boat and in return the waves pushed the boat strongly and the boat hit the rocks and the air came out quickly. The persons started jumping and swimming to the shore. My sister was not strong enough to jump and she got scared so she didn’t move. The boat was sinking. At that moment I decided not to get out either, so we would be together in or out of the water. The water was very cold and I couldn't move easily because my boots were heavy because they became full with water. The boat sank. We felt we were about to die.
I pushed my sister up to breathe and I swimmed holding her head to keep her face up. One Algerian guy helped us. We reached the rocks. I held the rocks after my sister stand on the rocks. She couldn't move her legs because the waves hit us several times against the rocks. She fell on the rocks and got injured on her leg. I was stronger so I kept shouting at her to gather her strength back because we were still in danger. The waves still hit us very strong and in any minute it might take us back to the water. The people left us behind because in their eyes we were slow. We swimmed to the shore. My sister walked slowly with shaking legs. We walked up the mountain. The mountain was high and I carried the two bags because my sister was very tired. Both of us were freezing. Two men came back to us to help us to cross the forest.”
They’d found themselves on the Greek island of Samos, where volunteers gave them food and water, and directed them to the ferry to the mainland. In Athens, they were able to stay with Franny’s friend Tim who cooked them food, washed their clothes and helped buy sim cards and research their onward travel. But they didn’t want to wait and rest - not even till their clothes were dry - because the borders were currently open to Iraqis, and the situation was changing hour-by-hour. So they took trains and buses for nearly a week, through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, and then finally arrived in Vienna, where they knew nobody. We put the word out on Facebook (which we’ve come to love during this experience) and they met with a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, Georg, who bought them lunch and gave them all the money in his bank account. How about that for humanity? Giving all your money to two strangers on the promise of repayment from another stranger on the internet.
Kulood and Teamim had joined up with a younger woman, the cousin of a friend, on the journey. The three women decided they would apply for asylum in Austria, as they’d heard it would give them the best chance of bringing their families over to join them later. (They would have preferred to come to the UK, where Lizzie and I could have helped with accommodation and jobs, but, well, we all know about the Tories’ immigration policies.) Unfortunately, they got some bad advice from a fellow refugee, who said they should travel to that well-known Austrian city of Frankfurt to register for asylum. Lizzie was messaging them as their train crossed from Austria to Germany, urging them to get off and get a train back to Austria. But unfortunately they were arrested at the border and their younger friend was detained, as she's a minor, and has not been heard of since.
Kulood and Teamim were held overnight in jail and then sent back to Austria, where they ended up on December 23rd in a small town called Klagenfurt. They walked to the refugee camp, but weren't allowed in because it wasn’t accepting newcomers. Hungry, exhausted, ill and now freezing cold - it had started snowing - they stood outside the camp and cried.
We put an urgent request out on Twitter for anybody in Klagenfurt who could help. The tweet was retweeted and retweeted until someone called Matthias Köchl replied saying he could be there in 15 minutes. It turned out he’s not only the area's Green MP, but also a coordinator of a local refugee support group. He and his wife, Elisabeth, collected the shivering sisters and took them straight to a cafe for hot food and then on to a pharmacy for medicines. Whilst they were thawing, they put the word out for a local family to house them temporarily and, within a couple of hours, they'd had eight (eight!!) offers. They drove them straight to the Edelbrunner family house.
Kulood wrote to me the next morning, Christmas Eve, ”Today is the first day we feel comfortable and relaxed. The family is very nice. They have given us our own room. They have very lovely dog, I love him. All the family welcome us in a very nice way. They spent Christmas with the family, and have been invited to stay as long as they’d like. The mother, Elisabeth Edelbrunner, says: “It is good to help people who are in need, especially who have no place to stay. We welcome to help others. We are Christian and we treat people with love and no difference between religions. This is not the first time we accept people in our house. We accepted families from different religions, like Muslims, and different countries, like Vietnam and Sri Lanka. We should share the peace we have inside and spread it to outside. We wish to have love and peace all over the world."
Kulood and Teamim have now applied for asylum in Austria, their applications have been accepted and they are busy teaching themselves German. If anyone would like to send them a message, I’m more than happy to pass it on.
And one extra twist to the story: even though the link to Matthias didn’t come directly via Age of Stupid - it turned out that one of his friends had organised a screening of our film back in the day. Small world.
After that incredible human-to-human international response, we are starting the new year feeling positive. The Paris climate deal was surprisingly good, as this article describes well. I like this bit: "When [the UN climate negotiation process] started governments were all important, whether they moved or not was the whole story. Here governments are only part of the picture. When we went to side events by business or environment groups 15 or 20 years ago it was all about the good ideas they might be able to do if they had the right policies. Now it’s about what they have already done.” Without blowing our joint trumpets too hard, we think Age of Stupid and 10:10 - and everyone who worked on or funded them - can take a small amount of the credit for the Paris step forward.
Meanwhile, you probably saw in the news in November that the police have apologised and paid substantial damages to the women who had long-term relationships with undercover officers. Our TV drama-to-be on the subject has finally taken a big leap forward: the script I've been writing for the last year has now got the thumbs up from our execs/gurus, Tony Garnett and Simon Beaufoy, and so we’re sending it off to broadcasters in the next couple of weeks. Scary! Oh, and we’ve decided to change the title from Undercovers, which is too generic, to one of the nicknames the undercover police team used to call itself, The Scruffy Squad. Whaddyareckon?
Back to Kulood for the last word: “Happy New Year. Hope this year will be good for us, for you, and for all the world. More love and more peace.”
Franny & Lizzie