In 2018, the United States, the world’s richest country by far, is expected to open its doors to .08 percent of the world’s 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
Even before President Donald Trump took office, the United States was accepting a paltry number, but Trump has reduced it even further. In September, he set the cap for refugee resettlement in the U.S. at 45,000 for 2018, the lowest level since its inception in 1980. But experts say that based on recent resettlement rates, the final number of refugees resettled here this year will be closer to 20,000.
This decision was met with little public outcry. Instead, Congress and the White House have been busy fighting over how many of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children should now be deported.
At the same time the U.S. is closing its doors to more people, the United Nations is asking governments for a record-breaking $22.5 billion in humanitarian assistance for 2018. This number reflects the dire circumstances that 91 million of the world’s most vulnerable people are facing. According to the UN, 28,000 people are forced to leave their homes every day because of conflict and persecution.
And as tonight’s episode of FRONTLINE shows, they have fewer and fewer places to run to. Xenophobia is spreading. Countries are shutting down their borders. Temporary camps are becoming permanent homes.
Exodus: The Journey Continues is a sequel to FRONTLINE’s earlier documentary film about the global refugee crisis. At times, it is relieving to catch up with some of the people who were introduced to us in the previous film. The difficult journey is behind them, and they are beginning to flourish in their newfound safety. For others, their new life in Europe is far from the happy ending they imagined.
My heart soared watching Isra’a, a 12-year old Syrian girl last seen coping with trauma at a makeshift camp along the Serbian-Croatian border, now settling into life in Germany. She appears relaxed in her new home and is quickly learning German, thanks to free language classes offered by the government. Her little sister, who’s disabled and in a wheelchair, is finally getting decent medical care and starting to thrive, bringing incredible joy to her parents.
But I was also nervous watching Isra’a pack her bag for the first day of school in Germany. Her dad explains that she missed three years of school in Syria, thanks to the civil war. She has an enormous amount of catching up to do and she has to do it in a foreign language while also trying to fit in.
“Germany gave us peace and security,” says Isra’a’s father, Tarek, a modern-day Georg Von Trapp. “History will write that Germany has done the right thing … shukran, Almania.”
The film also introduces us to new refugees, who are facing the obstacles in front of them with courage that is difficult to comprehend. And, as the film makes clear, not every country in Europe has acted with the same humanity and generosity of Germany.
Nazifa fled war-torn Afghanistan with her husband, Lateef, and their two young children. The film catches up with them in Malakasa Camp in Greece. They have been stuck there since Macedonia shut its borders to refugees and migrants in March 2016.
“The best part of someone’s life is their childhood,” Nazifa says. “But right now, my children are in a cage.”
The family is desperate to seek asylum in Germany, but unlike Isra’a’s family, who made the journey across Europe before borders started closing, Nazifa and her family can’t cross on foot from country to country to reach their final destination. To get to Germany now requires the help of smugglers, but the price — 3,500 euros per person — is more than they can afford.
Six-months pregnant, Nazifa realizes it has to be her that makes the dangerous journey alone. At a train station in Athens, she holds her young daughter on her lap, kisses her face, and asks, “Whose daughter are you?”
“I’m my mommy’s girl,” she says, smiling, thinking her mom is going away for two or three nights. Nazifa then boards the train, sobbing. She’s leaving her two children in a foreign country while she sets off with the hope of securing a better future for them and the child still yet to be born. She has no idea when she’ll see her two oldest children or Lateef again.
The film also travels to Lincoln, Nebraska, where we meet Tamir, a former translator for U.S. troops in Iraq. Thanks to that work, he was able to obtain a visa to the United States four months before Trump became president. The rest of his family are still targets of terrorist threats due to Tamir’s work with the Americans, so they are living in a tent in a refugee camp in Iraq. Tamir explains that he thought because he’d risked his and his family’s lives to work with the U.S. Army, he might be given special treatment. Trump’s travel ban, which originally included Iraq in its list of Muslim countries, left him feeling betrayed.
Azizzulah, who’s living outside of Belgrade, in a collection of abandoned railway cars and buildings, left Afghanistan after his brother, also a translator for U.S. troops, was killed in a car bomb attack. Azizzulah’s trip across Europe was cut short when Hungary closed its borders in 2015, leaving thousands stuck in Serbia. His days consist of trying to stay warm in the snowy Serbian winter, huddling with other refugees in the dark around trash can fires, and getting in touch with smugglers, who help plan his next attempted border crossing.
“What sort of humanity is this,” one of the men who lives in the encampment says. “We were in hope of Europe. This isn’t Europe.”
Exodus: The Journey Continues should be mandatory viewing for Western officials determining the fates of these people, as well as the rest of us. It’s important to know and understand the people on whom you’re turning your back, as well as the miraculous potential that’s unleashed when you give them a chance.
Photo caption: In Exodus: The Journey Continues, FRONTLINE tells the intimate stories of refugees and migrants, caught in Europe’s tightened borders. Amid the ongoing migration crisis, the film follows personal journeys over two years, as countries become less welcoming to those seeking refuge. This still was taken at the Malakasa refugee camp in Greece. Image Credit: Abi Mowbray / Keo Films