Thursday, September 10, 2015

How Watching ‘The Visitor’ with Refugees Changed My Life: Movie-watching, Tea Drinking, and Lessons in Connectedness

The sound of someone playing a bongo drum came in through our open window. “Maybe it’s Walter,” Pieter, one of my English-language students, teased. We all crowded around the second-story window, looking down at the pedestrian path of Mother Teresa Boulevard in the center of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital city.  I was teaching English, living in Kosovo that fall of 2010, my third stay in the country.  I’d just shown my advanced class the movie “The Visitor,” in which Richard Jenkins plays Walter, an isolated, grieving widower whose life is upended upon meeting, and subsequently living with two illegal immigrants in New York City: Tarek, a musician from Syria, and Zainab, an artisan selling her jewelry at a street market. I assigned homework for my students to write a few paragraphs in English about the theme, about what they took away from the movie. 

“As I saw and understood this movie I think it helps people to re-open their eyes because sometimes it is difference [sic] between things we see and things that really happen,” wrote Besim, a man in his mid-20s, who had grown up in Kosovo, who had known what it was to be a refugee. 

In fact, it was rare to meet a Kosovar who did not flee from home during the war with Serbia in the late 90s.  On my first visit to Kosovo in 2003, traveling in the role of writers with a team of documentary filmmakers, I met Lulzim, a young artist, writer, and filmmaker.  In his pocket was a photo he had taken in 1999, having packed into a bag those possessions he could carry on the road out of town, the click of his camera capturing the last image he had of his house: a plume of smoke rising from the burning homes of his neighborhood. 

Collecting stories, we spoke with many people through our translator, a boy in his late teens, who spoke at least 4 languages by the time he was 17.  Sitting in his family’s living room, he listened carefully to Habib, his father.  He translated word for word stories he must have heard a dozen times: his dad’s memories of running an underground school for kids whose families couldn’t afford books or supplies, of sharing one pair of shoes with his son, taking turns so they could each leave the house. Habib told of the time the Serbian troops began clearing out their city, how he wasn’t feeling well and had instructed his family to leave him on the road if he couldn’t go far. Our translator shook his head, unable to imagine fleeing home without his father. Habib finished the journey to the refugee camp with his wife and sons.

In another family room in a village outside the city, we sat on long cushions that lined the small, square space, faded colorful rugs covering the cement floor.  The family patriarch and his neighbors welcomed us with stories, while his wife and daughters hunched before us, offering us trays filled with small bowls of pretzels, nuts, cookies, followed by cups of caj, strong black tea served in delicate, hourglass shaped glasses, a small wedge of lemon and a tiny spoon resting on the saucer for us to stir in the copious amounts of sugar added to each glass.

So warmly welcomed, I asked about the hospitality Kosovo is famous for. As Noel Malcom references in Kosovo: A Short History, “there are stories of Albanians sacrificing their lives to protect a perfect stranger who had taken shelter with them for one night.” In response, our host told us a story. 

During the war between the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) and the Serbian forces, both military and paramilitary, entire Albanian villages were forced from their homes.  The refugees would move on to the next village, where the people would welcome them into their homes, knowing that at any moment, they all might be homeless, relying on the kindness of their neighbors. In that sense the phrase “feel free to come and go in my home as you wish,” (the Albanian version of “mi casa es su casa,”) took on greater and more immediate meaning, the tradition of hospitality now a necessity.  He indicated the floor space of the room in which we sat, and said sometimes one hundred people would stay in his house – forty of fifty packed tightly on the floor to sleep. 

Later that month, I played the host, making caj on the wood-burning stove at the house of my American friend, who was entertaining our documentary team during our stay.  We perched on her Western furniture, drinking tea with Ardian and his wife and their beautiful, plump, rosy-cheeked baby.

Ardian leaned back into the soft sofa, in a place of safety, to recall the time he was chased from his home.  He, his little sister, mother and father had had just enough warning to pack their small Yugo to flee their home. In the rush, Ardian’s father brusquely told his daughter that she could not fit her favorite doll into the trunk, and she would have to leave it behind.  As their father turned away, Ardian stuffed the doll into his sister’s bag, barely managing to zip it closed.  They closed the trunk on all their possessions that would fit, and drove away from their home. 

To reach the border, they had to cross a river patrolled by Serb paramilitary.  Choosing a shallow crossing they began to drive across, when true to its reputation, the little Yugo stalled. 

Ardian’s family froze in silence, not daring to look out of the windows, for fear of whom they might see.  His father tried to restart the car, several times.  When the engine finally caught, they continued across the river, only to be stopped by the Serb forces.

Obeying the soldier’s directive to step out of the car, Ardian, his little sister, and mother watched as the soldier ordered his father to open the trunk, allowing the soldier to rifle through their few possessions.  Ardian watched as the man chose his sister’s bag.  Unzipping it, her favorite doll sprung out like a jack-in-the-box.  The soldier’s face changed as he looked from the doll in his hands to the little girl standing next to the car. 

Without a word, the soldier zipped the doll into the bag, placed it back in the car, and closed the trunk.  He turned to Ardian’s father, and directed him to drive straight to the border, not to stop for anyone. 

As they made their way safely to a refugee camp outside of Kosovo, Ardian tried to imagine the soldier’s story.  That perhaps he too had a daughter or a sister, and the doll reminded him of all that connected them as human beings.  Perhaps it looked like the doll he was embarrassed to play with as a little boy.  Whatever the reason, the moment changed the course of Ardian’s story: he saw a fellow human being in the Serb soldier.  He could only guess how the moment may have altered the soldier’s day, or his family, or his life.

It’s been five years since I left Kosovo, since I sat with former refugees who had returned home to study, to work at museums or in an office or to launch a community-based magazine. Five years since we watched “The Visitor” and talked about the character Tarek’s life, and what would happen to him when he was deported back to Syria, where his journalist father had been imprisoned for his writing.  Five years after a myriad of reports of the civilian toll of the civil war and protests in Syria, the world is suddenly aware, awakened by images of drowned toddlers, lives cut brutally short in their families’ attempts to escape the horror. 

Fleeing Syria, did one artist stop to snap a photo, one last look at the neighborhood where he grew up? Where his father had bought a house, gotten married, had children?  Did a little girl try to pack her favorite doll in her small bag for the journey?  Did her mother look back at the remains of the home where she taught her daughter to read? Syrian refugees are running from the rubble of their homes, risking their lives and the lives of their children to escape the horrifying civil war and terrorist attacks, looking back to see their homes decimated, choosing what to pack for their children’s long-journey, not knowing where they will land, but desperate for safety and peace.

We watch in horror on our television and computer screens, not an edited film, but the reality of refugees. We wonder why governments will not open their borders. As my sister Christina wrote, “My emotions stem from my strong sense that people around the world do realize our connection to one another and are acting out of love in spite of the choices of our elected officials. My hope is that we now consider what our true interests are as global neighbors and work to create systems of governance that mirror our real values.”  She then referenced Alan Seal:

"So here’s the fundamental shift available to us right now. If we are willing to step beyond the head’s fears, anger, doubts, and discomfort for even just a few moments and focus our attention on the heart, something changes in our awareness and perception. The human heart has an uncanny ability to embrace the full spectrum of what is happening without judgment and, somehow, to begin making sense of it. Somewhere from within our greater knowing, a new level of understanding begins to emerge."

Watching innumerable refugees stream into cities, it can be overwhelming, difficult to relate to the individual’s story, to see our connectedness, to "embrace the full spectrum without judgment."  To remember what one former refugee wrote in Kosovo: “As I saw and understood this movie I think it helps people to re-open their eyes because sometimes it is difference [sic] between things we see and things that really happen.” 

We watch movies like "The Visitor" and walk away more aware, awake, connected. We listen to each other’s stories to remember a soldier and a little girl’s favorite doll. We welcome the stranger as family, and know one day we may need similar hospitality.  We serve each other hot cups of tea and snacks, create paths for connection and roads to safety, knowing that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.