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Why an Oscar Winner Took In an Afghan Teen Refugee

Director Stefan Ruzowitzky hopes to provide "a normal, ordinary, peaceful life" for Masud, who made his way alone from Iran to Austria, where an anti-immigrant backlash threatens his future.

As the refugee crisis continues to create waves throughout Europe, Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky (who won the foreign film Oscar for The Counterfeiters in 2008) has for nearly a year been hosting an Afghan refugee named Masud in his home near Vienna. Masud’s family escaped from Afghanistan to Iran when he was 2 years old; as a teen, when Iran attempted to force Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, he made a dangerous journey to Europe alone in the hope of finding asylum. In Austria, Masud, now 18, has the opportunity to attend high school and build a future for himself. Ruzowitzky, 54, who directed the upcoming Screen Gems project Patient Zero, spoke to THR about welcoming Masud into his family as the crisis in Austria continues.

Last year in Austria, we had 90,000 asylum seekers, which is more than 1 percent of the whole population. For America, that would be the same as about 4 million refugees coming to the country in one year. In Europe, we have a very elaborate welfare system; usually, we can rely on that system to take care of whoever is in need, but in this case, it was just too much for the system to handle. The whole system kind of broke down. There wasn’t enough space in the camps, and the federal institutions couldn’t handle it all.

So now here, like in Germany, there’s been a big movement of citizens starting to help in different ways. They’re donating clothes and food, they’re working as translators at the train station, they’re teaching language courses.

I volunteered in my community’s refugee camp teaching German. Masud was one of my pupils. He’s a dedicated soccer player, and he asked me if I could help him to play on a team in our community, so I called a friend of mine. And so a relationship was established, and then he was text messaging with me, sort of to show how good his German was. At some point, my wife and I felt that it would be a good idea to invite him to stay in our house and go to high school here. My younger daughter, Anna, just returned from a student exchange program in Los Angeles, where she was living with a host family. The host just helped her to deal with this new situation, and this is what we’re doing with Masud, who’s about the same age as my daughter.

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I think the closer you get to a refugee, the more he’s just an ordinary human being. With Masud, we don’t see him as part of the refugee crisis — he’s a teenager. He wants to become a professional soccer player. He adores Cristiano Ronaldo. He plays on the local soccer team now and was beaming with pride when he won a trophy with his team a few weekends ago.

He’s a teenager. He’s a big Enrique Iglesias fan. Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson are his favorite movie stars. It’s not all about Afghanistan and Taliban and refugee camps. When he came here from Afghanistan, he’d had enough adventures, and so now it’s about just having a normal, ordinary, peaceful life.

Masud applied for asylum but was denied (he can stay on humanitarian grounds for one year); he will reapply next year in the hope of staying to study and work in Austria. Part of the European system is that if you are refused by one European country, you can’t apply for asylum in another European country, so in that case, he’d have to return to Afghanistan, but he doesn’t have any more family there; his parents are still in Iran.

In Austria, there’s been a whole range of reactions to the crisis. Many people are fearful; there’s a lot of hate toward refugees. There are people who say: “All these refugees, they are rapists and thieves — we shouldn’t allow them to enter our country.” But others are very welcoming.

I think there’s a chance for society to develop and make something good out of it — not to see the refugees as only a burden and a problem. It’s going to cost a lot of money, and it’s going to take a lot of energy, but I think it might be something that’s advantageous for all of us. The question is whether our society will make it possible for people like Masud to join it — if they can have a job and contribute something to society, as opposed to just putting hundreds of young men in camps without a chance to work or to study or to have a family.

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He’s starting to become aware of how different life here is. It’s in the little things. At first, he didn’t know how to pet our dog, Juli, because, as he told us, back home people don’t have dogs as pets; dogs are seen as dirty animals and there are only dogs in the street. Now, Juli and Masud are best friends, playing with each other and cuddling all the time. When Masud was with us for Christmas, he got hugs from my daughters, and I had the feeling this was the first time he got hugged by a woman who was not his mother or his sister. It’s a different set of values we have here.

The first time he ever had lunch with our family, he told us that back at home, it was always his mother and his sister who cleaned up the table, and my daughters said, “Well, that isn’t a good concept.” So then he goes, “OK,” and now he does his fair share of work around the house. I think he’s young enough and open enough to adapt to our ways and say, “OK, it’s different here, and if I want to have a life here in Austria, I’ve got to live by their rules and adapt to their values,” without giving up his identity.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.