No home for the brave

While making a documentary about Afghanistan’s Tolo TV station, Eva Orner befriended several women. Their stories should make us rethink how we view asylum seekers

In 2011, I spent three months in Afghanistan making The Network, a documentary on Afghanistan’s largest media company, Tolo.

The film is about the power of media to effect social change. In a country where the literacy rate is only around 30 per cent and 12 years ago there was no electricity or television, the power of the media to inform and educate is impossible to underestimate.

I always knew part of the film would deal with women who worked at Tolo. Afghan women have suffered horribly under different regimes, especially the Taliban, who confined them to wearing burkas and living a life virtually indoors and unseen, without education or work.

The women in the film elicit strong reactions from the audience and, in many cases, tears.

Women represent about 20 per cent of the company’s more than 800 employees, an extraordinary figure in a country where 12 years ago they were forbidden to work at all. Women at Tolo act in dramas, present news and current affairs, report on the news channel, direct, write, edit and more. But as with all things in Afghanistan, not all is rosy.

When I met Marina Zaffari she was working as a producer and presenter on one of Tolo’s popular current affairs programs. She is bright, assured, articulate and beautiful. And she was not afraid to be critical of some of the programs produced by Tolo, her employer.

I stayed in touch with most of the people who appeared in the film and would email them updates on its progress. But I hadn’t heard from Marina for many months and was concerned.

When I inquired about her with some of the other women who worked at Tolo, I didn’t get a response. After some months I received an email from Marina.

She told me since we had last met about a year earlier, she had married a lovely and educated Afghan man. Ahmad Javeed Ahwar is a lawyer and a fairly outspoken critic of the Taliban. Marina had presented various programs that had also been critical of the Taliban. As a consequence they and their families were receiving death threats from the Taliban and other fundamentalist radicals. Despite being proud and patriotic Afghans, they knew their time there was up.

Marina and Javeed decided to escape and when Marina contacted me they had been living in a refugee camp in the Netherlands for some months, and their application for refugee status had recently been denied. When she reached out they were waiting on their appeal and feeling hopeless.

From what I can ascertain, the major reason for Marina and Javeed’s failure to date to gain refugee status is the path they took to the Netherlands. As a refugee, the first place you land is the place you must apply for refugee status. Most people seeking asylum that I have met claim not to know this.

Marina and Javeed had in fact left Afghanistan to study for a short time in other countries: Javeed in Iceland and Marina in Germany. After their studies they decided not to return to Afghanistan, as they believed they were in danger, and met up in the Netherlands. The problem is now the Netherlands has an excuse, by law, to refuse them. Marina should have applied for refugee status in Germany and Javeed in Iceland.

In a world overflowing with refugees, a country will use a legitimate reason to refuse someone refugee status, and this is the position Marina and Javeed find themselves in.

Marina Zaffari and her husband

Marina Zaffari and her husband are stuck in legal limbo

I asked what I could do to help. She asked me to send a copy of the film to the IND (Immigration and Naturalisation Service) in the Netherlands, which I did, along with a letter validating her story. Marina told me her attorney had suggested having her story published would be helpful, so I interviewed Marina, wrote an article and it was published in the US and Europe.

The film finally had its theatrical premiere in New York in September 2013. Like most of the people that appear in the film, Marina follows me on Facebook and Twitter. The day after the premiere, Marina emailed me to congratulate me. I asked her if there had been any progress with her case.

Below are edited excerpts of our correspondence:

About me, yes, I am good. We have started to fight here. The very first day of my asylum seeking I believed that Europe was going to be the land of justice and human rights. But now I see that also here I must fight for my rights. Isn’t it so funny Eva?

For the third time I changed my lawyer. Now he is not a governmental lawyer but a great one.

We originally asked for him but he had not time for me. But after reading your article about me he approved our case. He personally called me [and] apologised about what the Netherlands immigration office did to us. I was very happy that day. I told him everything about our case and he promises that he will help us and is optimistic about our future here. Maybe in December I will have good news for you.

Thanks, Marina

Sadly, Marina’s exuberance was short lived.

Within a couple of weeks she once again sounded despondent. Her new attorney had gone through their case and I assume, once he became familiar with their path to the Netherlands, was a little less certain he could help them. And so once again they are stuck in limbo, waiting on their appeal. Waiting on their appeal. It’s a heartbreaking situation.

Another woman in the documentary, Fatemah, also recently left Afghanistan.

She had a senior position at Tolo and had been there for many years. For the past few years Tolo has been sending two employees to summer film school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, to enhance their skills and bring back new ideas. At the end of the course, Fatemah decided she would have a better future in the West. She ran. She is in the process of trying to get asylum.

A few people have asked me, “Will they be better off in the West?” It’s hard to say. In Afghanistan they had good jobs, positions of respect and large, extended families. In the West, if they get asylum, who knows what they will face. They may follow the incredible path of Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or they may become defeated by the harsh realities of life as a refugee. I am hopeful for them, as they are smart, resourceful and brave.

Eva Orner is a film-maker and producer of the Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. You can watch The Network as video-on-demand from www.filmbuff.com