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Sky and Ground: A Syrian Family’s Journey Across Borders

“The regime was bombing us on a daily basis … The hardest decision was to leave Aleppo, but I could see that my family needed me,” recalls Guevara Nabi the weeks before fleeing war-torn Syria.

Like thousands of Syrians, the Nabi family left everything they knew behind and set off on an over 3,000km journey in search of safety and asylum in Europe.

In Turkey, “we found a smuggler who got us a boat and we took off [to Greece],” says Guevara.

At the border between Greece and Macedonia, the family found themselves stuck. In March 2016, some European countries had announced border restrictions to stem the flow of refugees seeking asylum. The Balkan route was in effect closed and thousands of refugees, including the Nabi family, were left at the border.

The days brought hot weather, heavy rain, and the threat of disease in the refugee camp, and protests against the closed border turned violent.

“The situation is hard. We’ve escaped war. We came here and the border closed in our faces. If we stay here in this misery, my family will go crazy,” Guevara says.

Under his guidance, the family decided to strike out on their own – using his phone’s GPS and the guidance of his brothers in Berlin to smuggle his 15 relatives and friends through the Macedonian countryside and across eastern Europe in the hopes of reuniting with their relatives in Germany.

Sky and Ground follows every high, low, risk and success that these refugees endure in the hope of a better life.

The Nabi family decided to smuggle themselves through eastern Europe on their way to Germany [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

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FILMMAKER’S VIEW

By Talya Tibbon

I first met Guevara and his family not long after I arrived in Idomeni, a makeshift refugee camp, on the Greek-Macedonian border.

By then, some members of the family had been on the road for more than four years, fleeing the war in Syria.

They had spent the last three months of that period stuck in Idomeni together with another 10,000 people – restless and anxious after the borders along the Balkan route had been shut.

But the family were done and determined to not spend another day there. Bags were packed, phones were charged and as long goodbyes stretched into the afternoon, I negotiated how we may able to tag along.

With a few exceptions (young people excited by the adventure), everyone I encountered along the way in the months of filming hated being a refugee. They hated the label, which they felt left them powerless and unable to control their lives. They hated being at the mercy of a border soldier, a Red Cross volunteer or complicated agreements between world leaders.

More than anything, they hated living between the world they left behind and the one they were hoping to reach suspended in the unknown.

Guevara lead his family using his phone’s GPS and the guidance of his brothers in Berlin [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Back in Aleppo, Guevara was a student-activist who dreamed of becoming a professor of Arabic literature. His nieces and nephew wanted to study law, film and music. Shireen, his sister loved working in a hair salon while her husband, Souleiman, made a decent living from construction jobs. Jalila, Guevara’s mother, loved having her eight children and all of her grandchildren close.

The war disrupted all of that.

The family dispersed and Guevara was tasked with taking to safety three generations of those who stayed behind. Guevara had not chosen to be the group’s leader – he had to figure out how to be one. He and his family, their partners on the journey and millions of others trying to make their way to Europe were not prepared for this ordeal.

Nothing had trained them to negotiate with people smugglers, walk for days through the Macedonian hills and fields, sleep under the stars, hide from Hungarian soldiers or face an interrogation by Austrian police.

As days turned into weeks and months, and we continued to follow their odyssey, I was touched by how, even though everything had been taken away from them, they were determined to remain themselves, never accepting that being “refugees” was their destiny.

They always looked for a way out and back to normalcy. Meanwhile, they found comfort in sticking together as a family – in the daily routines of preparing meals, in cracking jokes and teasing each other and even in bickering over who carried which bag and what was worth keeping.

The family worried about being turned back as they passed through the European countryside [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

As a filmmaker, “embedding” with your subjects poses moral and editorial dilemmas on a daily basis.

When Jalila, the family matriarch, wondered why we couldn’t get them a car (or put them in ours), or when the kids asked why do I get to go back to a hotel at the end of the evening and they don’t, I didn’t have good enough answers. They weren’t criminals and I wasn’t better than them.

Such dilemmas double when you embed with people during a crisis and there were times when some of the family’s frustration was taken out on us.

But from the outset, we knew we couldn’t do anything illegal (like sneaking through borders) and we also knew that we didn’t want to do anything that would potentially put the family at risk or alter their journey. We couldn’t be there every moment of their journey, so I left a small camera with Guevara and later with his nieces.

The film features material they shot on their own, as well as earlier footage that Guevara, who had started documenting the family in Syria, had kept.

I see Sky and Ground very much as a collaboration with the Sheikh Nabi-Abdulrahman clan. Guevara, his mum, his sister’s family and those who joined their journey are just one group among hundreds of thousands. In the last couple of years, millions of people made a similar journey.

As the “anti-other” sentiment here in the United States and in Europe continues to gain traction, I hope that this film will serve as an opportunity to remind us all that the only difference between being a “refugee” or “migrant” and the privilege of not being one, is nothing but luck.

In March 2016, the government of Macedonia closed its borders to refugees, which meant that refugees like Guevara and his family had to travel secretly through the country [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera