One Refugee’s “Surreal” Journey From On-Camera, to Behind It
When FRONTLINE viewers last saw Hassan Akkad, the former English teacher from Damascus had just completed a desperate, three-month journey to the U.K.
That journey involved trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a sinking dinghy, spending two months stranded at the notorious “Jungle” encampment in Calais, France, and, finally, crossing safely into the U.K, in September of 2015 — all of it documented in Exodus, the 2016 FRONTLINE documentary about the global refugee and migrant crisis.
“Anyone can become a refugee, anyone,” Akkad, who fled Syria after he says he was beaten and imprisoned by government forces, said in the film. “It’s not something which you choose. It’s something that happens to you.”
Today, nearly two-and-a-half years after arriving in Britain, Akkad is no longer in front of the camera. Instead, he’s one of the people behind it.
In the fall of 2016, he joined director James Bluemel’s team at London-based Keo Films as a researcher on Exodus: The Journey Continues, a sequel to the first documentary that airs Tuesday, January 23 on PBS.
“James Bluemel, I remember him ringing me, and he was like, ‘Hassan, I’ve got a job for you,’” says Akkad, now 30, who was granted asylum six months after arriving in the U.K. and currently lives in West London. “And that was honestly very, very thoughtful and very generous.”
The call came at an opportune time.
“I remember back then I was kind of suffering from survivor’s guilt because I made it,” says Akkad. “Having that chance to go back to these countries that I’ve passed through as a refugee, and tell other people’s stories … to be involved in making that was such an honor and privilege.”
Filmed over three years and across 31 countries, Exodus: The Journey Continues is an intimate look at the ongoing, global migration crisis. Like its predecessor, the film places the firsthand stories of refugees and migrants front and center: It’s told through the eyes of people who have fled hardship in their home countries, but now face rising anti-immigrant sentiment and tightening borders both in Europe and America.
Akkad uses the word “surreal” repeatedly when describing what it was like to join the sequel’s film team — including when discussing his first official film shoot. Its location was the site of one of the most difficult yet pivotal portions of his own journey: the camp in Calais where around 6,000 migrants were living at any one time in 2015.
In the first Exodus film, he called the camp “the graveyard of hopes.” It was there in July of 2015 that he first met Bluemel and became an Exodus film participant.
Even before then, Akkad had begun documenting his escape to Europe on video himself, hoping to shine a light on the struggles and choices facing refugees by posting his footage to YouTube. Instead, his story would go on to become a central part of Exodus — and the quality of his self-shot footage (including on a sinking dinghy) would help spur Bluemel to offer him a behind-the-scenes role in the sequel.
When Akkad returned to Calais in the fall of 2016, much had changed for him. He had gained both asylum in the U.K., and a press pass. In many ways, though, what he saw on the ground was all too familiar. Akkad says he ran into people who had been in Calais at the same time he had, and were still waiting for their chance at asylum.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Akkad says. “I wanted to apologize.”
Something else stood out to Akkad about being back in Calais: “When I was doing my journey, every time I’d see a news crew, I would go up to them and be like, ‘Listen guys, I mean, you really have to tell the story here. Because we need help,’” he remembers.
This time, the roles were reversed, and people were coming up to him to say the same.
“It’s like a cycle, that keeps going on and on and on again,” he says. “And I’ve experienced it being a refugee myself, and going back as a filmmaker… it was so surreal.”
While working with Bluemel’s team, Akkad also traveled to Greece and Germany for filming and research trips. What he saw — heightened militarization and tightening of borders, and increasing footholds for far-right political groups — didn’t make him optimistic about a swift resolution to the crisis: “It’s only getting worse, to be honest,” he says.
Part of the reason anti-refugee sentiment has taken hold, Akkad believes, is that many Western media outlets have failed to educate the public on why people are fleeing. He recalls reading a story criticizing refugees for having smartphones: “I saw that people in their heads feel like if you’re fleeing war, you have to be in rags,” he says. “They don’t know that people are not fleeing because they’re poor, or because they don’t have smartphones. They’re fleeing for their lives.”
Akkad hopes that Exodus and its sequel will invite viewers to relate to people like him who have done exactly that.
“These are humans,” he says. “They share our dreams, they share our hopes, but they got caught up in very unfortunate circumstances.”
Meanwhile, Akkad, who hopes to continue working on documentary films, is adjusting to life in London. Since the first Exodus film aired, in addition to working on its sequel, he’s also given talks and done interviews on his experience as a Syrian refugee. He’s gone to music festivals and met what he calls a great circle of friends. He is, he says, “genuinely one of the lucky ones.”
But his parents remain in Damascus, and both the Syrian war and the global refugee crisis continue.