You never know how amazing the guy pouring your favorite beer might be. I know that I myself was surprised to hear that a co-worker, Tom Ellis, from Offshore Ale was heading to Serbia to do a documentary about the refugees in that country.
I had known that Tom went to school for filmmaking, but I was unaware of his desire, and need to be the change, to do good in the world. Through a series of serendipitous events, a plan to travel to Serbia was set in motion.
Deciding to Go to Serbia
Tom has always had an interest in the Middle East, its people and culture. He has had a lot of friends and people who he has met, that break through the typical stereotypes of many Americans have of people from the Middle East. He realized that the media was most likely not portraying the refugees from the Middle East in Serbia accurately. So much fear and distrust has been publicized, but the reality is that these are people in need of help. He also considers himself and activist and felt like he could do some good.
Last Fall, Tom’s friend and Islander, Julia MacNelly, who worked at the South East European Film Festival, met with the festival director, Vera Mijojlić, and they were wondering why no one was doing a documentary on the refugees in Serbia. At that moment, Julia said she could do it.
She called Tom and told him about her idea. They agreed that something should be done, that there was a story there, and agreed to go to Serbia over the Winter to make a documentary. So, they created an Indiegogo page, saved their money, and the plan was in motion.
Serbia is one of the more hospitable places for refugees. There are three peoples that Serbia is helping relocate, Syrians, Afghanis, and Iraqis. If you are not one of these three, as a refugee, things are much harder.
From Martha’s Vineyard To Serbia
In January this year, after a couple of months of careful planning, Tom and Julia landed in Belgrade. Each filmmaker had different hopes for this trip. For Julia, it was the research component — spreading and sharing knowledge.
For Tom, it was about capturing stories that would combat the racism towards these refugees amongst Americans. But for both of the these writer/directors and now cameramen, this was going to impact the rest of their lives.
At 26 years old, Tom has seen a lot, not only from this trip, but just from traveling his whole life. But from this experience, he is still sorting through the emotions of what he witnessed and was a part of.
The day after Julia and Tom got to Serbia, they went to what’s called Info Park, a refugee camp in Belgrade. On that day, they found the person who would become the main character in their documentary, a refugee named Abdulrahaman. He is a 23-year-old medical student from Syria.
Abdulrahaman was helping at the camp. There was an immediate connection with him and Tom and Julia, and an unbelievable stroke of luck. He could speak several languages and he became their translator.
As a refugee, Abdulrahaman, had his own terrible experiences when fleeing to a safe country. To get to Serbia, part of his journey required him to take a boat from Turkey to Greece. In Greece, he was made to stay in the cold water for 5 hours straight, while the Greek police processed refugees. Though from a coastal town, Abdulrahaman will not go in the water again.
The relationship between the three continued to grow. Abdulrahaman was Tom and Julia’s way to be allowed into the lives of the refugees. With him, they could go places, and people would talk to them. Abdulrahaman just had to tell people that they were with him, and things were OK.
Abdulrahaman, Tom and Julia traveled to a large camp in Presevo. There with the perimeter surrounded by guards with AK-47’s, they were really able to interact with the refugees.
The media often portrays the refugees as the main reason for crime or things going wrong, but Tom got to see the refugees, as they were living day to day to day in the camps.
In the camps, where people lived in tents, there was food (not the best) and medical attention. Most of the refugees in the camps had come from what we consider middle class. People were educated, compassionate, and amazingly full of hope. Tom got to see that they were just people, like you and me, but in circumstances that left their lives in complete upheaval.
Being in Serbia meant that they were one step closer to better lives, leaving the fear of persecution and death behind. For Tom, this was what he wanted to capture. Show that the refugees are not to be feared. They want to be safe, and are grateful to be alive and they want to begin again.
There is so much more to Tom’s story. After being in Serbia for a month, there are so many experiences, good and bad, but I only have so much room in this story. However, I wanted to end with a highlight from Tom’s trip. Something that gave him hope.
Many of the refugee children were enamored by Tom’s camera which looks almost like a traditional camera but takes video. They wanted portraits taken of them. After having nothing new to do for so long in Presevo, this was a big deal. So, Tom took pictures and let them take pictures.
One young girl pushed her way through the large group, and wanted to take a picture. Tom was blown away by a pictures she took of a boy. Perfect. Focused. Amazing lighting, a true natural. Tom did his best with Abdulrahaman to tell her and people around her that she needed to get a camera once she found a new place to call home. That she had a gift.
This moment of beauty really stuck with Tom. The joy he was able to witness. He got to see how amazing the human spirit can be, that hope can endure and that these people in peril are just people. Some good and some bad, just like here on our little Island.
Tom and Julia were able to capture the humanity of the refugees in Serbia. They are currently working on their documentary. Tom hopes that they have a clip to show at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival happening later this month on Martha’s Vineyard. There, Tom and Julia will most likely hold a panel discussion about their film and experience.
The documentary itself will be finished in April, where it will premier at the South East European Film Festival in Los Angeles.
It’s crazy to think that these two young people from Martha’s Vineyard decided to take on the mission to show the humanity of the refugees in Serbia. Capturing the heart and soul of people in peril will hopefully help people see the refugees in a different light, and help them gain more support as they try to create new lives for themselves and their families.
The strength and courage and motivation to do good is so inspiring. I know that I was not doing anything half as amazing at such a young age. Heck, I am yet to do something this amazing, that could effect so many people. They’re inspiring.
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