Oscar-Nominated Filmmakers: Banning Our Syrian Doc Subjects From Traveling Does Not Make America Safer (Guest Column)

"When even heroes are not welcome, where are we?" writes director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara about the subject of their Oscar nominated doc short, 'The White Helmets'.

Director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara were planning on taking two of the subjects of their nominated documentary short, The White Helmets, as their guests to the Oscars. On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order putting into place an immigration and travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria. Due to the ban Raed Saleh, the head of the White Helmet organization, and Khaled Khatib, a White Helmet volunteer and the short's cinematographer, will no longer be able to attend the awards show with the filmmakers, unless it is under an exemption. 

As it stands today, our humanitarian heroes may be ostracized from attending the Academy Awards where our documentary, also called The White Helmets, is nominated for an Oscar. This time last year we were filming in a Turkish border town in sub-zero temperatures in order to document a group of volunteer rescue workers from Syria as they took part in a training course designed to improve their life-saving skills. Known as the White Helmets and made up of ordinary Syrian civilians, they commit to a charter of impartiality when they join the group. These men and women risk their lives every day to save the victims of the war, often trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings or injured in air strikes. 

Each of the White Helmets who had traveled from Syria to train in the relative safety of Turkey, could easily have walked out of the center and declared themselves refugees or asylum seekers in need of protection or help from a safe nation, as is their right under international law. They could have chosen to join the millions of people understandably fleeing the wanton destruction falling from the sky, killing their friends and relatives back home in Syria.

Instead they could not wait for the training course to finish so they could return to their bombed out cities and continue their work; their driving motivation being to save life. It is no surprise that their sheer dedication and courage has been recognized globally; to date they have saved over 75,000 lives. The 3,000 exceptional men and women who make up the White Helmets have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; won the Right Livelihood Award; appeared on the front cover of Time magazine, been championed by high-profile supporters such as George Clooney, Thandie Newton and Ben Affleck; and are recognized by organizations such as United Nations, the EU and USAID. They are feted as some of the bravest men and women in recent history. We are sure that in decades to come they will be recalled with the same warm reverence we reserve for those who have risked their own lives to save others, much like Oskar Schindler or Harriet Tubman. For Syrian civilians right now, these guys are the closest thing to superheros.

We had hoped that our documentary about the volunteers would be well received. We hoped that it would raise the profile of their extraordinary story and that it might boost their morale to see how people from around the world would react to their bravery with empathy and passion. We had not dared to hope that it might be recognized by the film community, so last week, when the film was nominated for an Academy Award, we were absolutely thrilled. There could be no higher recognition in the arts, and we shared the news with delight with the White Helmets.

We planned to invite their head, Raed Saleh, and our cinematographer and White Helmet, Khaled Khatib, who bravely filmed inside eastern Aleppo at risk of bombs and sniper attacks, as our honored guests to the ceremony, and hoped very much they would take time out of their busy schedules to come and experience the world’s recognition of them. 

Friday’s announcement leaves us shocked and appalled that the world’s bravest humanitarians might be forbidden from entering the United States for the foreseeable future. As it directly affects the most selfless and inspirational humans we have ever met, this turn of events seems to highlight the height of the inefficacy and inappropriateness of this ban. This is not making America safer.

We are heartened that the film community has embraced the need to protect hard-won freedoms and are touched by the messages of support so many have sent for Raed and Khaled. These echo the numerous high-profile endorsements of the group’s 2016 Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Unlike those behind this discriminatory order, the White Helmets do not make exceptions. When it comes to saving lives they will save anyone. Their motto is “To save a life, is to save all of humanity” — it’s an Islamic saying drawn directly from the Qur’an. Right now it seems we might need them more than they need us, because when even heroes are not welcome, where are we? 

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