Astrinaki on Model Communities of Refugee Integration: Chronicle of a Documentation

Riace, a little medieval town in Italy which had welcomed refugees from 20 different nationalities, was sadly empty. Photo: Eleftheria Astrinaki

NEW YORK – Eleftheria Astrinaki, filmmaker and Visiting Assistant Professor at New York University, College of Arts and Science, A.S. Onassis Program in Hellenic Studies, originally from Heraklion in Crete, recently shared her most recent project with The National Herald.

An article on Aljazeera about Kilis, a small town at the Turkish Syrian borders described as a prototype community of refugee integration inspired the conception of a documentary film called Small is Beautiful which wrapped filming about a month ago, she told TNH. Small is Beautiful is funded by Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, produced by Oh my Dog Productions, and directed by Astrinaki.

She told TNH, “Kilis paradigm has led our research for other model communities of refugee integration at the gates of Europe, where the so called refugee ‘crisis’ has formed its focal point, namely in Italy and Greece.

“We pitched our documentary project to Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in May 2018. We were green-lit in July 2018 to document refugee integration in three small communities at the external borders of the European continent: Riace, at the region of Calabria, in southern Italy, Tilos island at the south east of Aegean Sea in Greece and Kilis, at the south east of Turkey, 80 km away from the town of Aleppo, Syria.

“Two months before principal photography, the Italian and the Greek community were crushed, while the PM of Turkey threatened to attack Syria, once again, from the region of Kilis. Those unique communities that are to set an example against the European border policy were to cease to exist. Matteo Salvini, the far right wing Minister of Internal Affairs of the newly elected Italian government, has placed in house arrest and later in exile the Mayor of Riace, Mimmo Lucano, accusing him of aiding illegal migration and fraud. Salvini ordered the removal of all refugees from Riace. On Tilos island, the NGO Solidarity Now has started transferring refugees from the island during the summer of 2018 and terminated its operations on Tilos in December 2018, a month after the denial of UNHCR to green light the social enterprise of a dairy farm where refugees and locals would work together.”

She continued, “Committed to our documentation of refugee integration, we captured the rally of refugees and locals celebrating new years in Riace holding placates reading: ‘Riace Non Si’ (Riace doesn’t get arrested), shouting and writing with candles on the central Square ‘Mimmo Libero,’ asking the government to free the mayor. But, Riace, that little medieval town covered with political graffiti and signs of refugees welcome indicating 20 different nationalities hosted, was sadly empty; the grand majority of refugees had been transferred to Italian city centers. All the social enterprises of refugees and locals that formed the base for the model community Riace used to be were locked. We were able to locate a couple from Eritrea that has been living in Riace four years already. They were the only ones still working voluntarily, hoping that the Mayor will return and things will get back to normal.

“The Tilos Community was totally crushed. We wandered around Greece for more than two months to find refugee integration among the Estia Program of UNHCR, but it proved to be rather difficult to locate. We ended up shooting in Anogia, a village on the island of Crete, where the first Center for Unaccompanied Minors Seeking Asylum was founded back in 2001. The society of Anogia that has experienced dislocation during World War II has been embracing and integrating refugee minors for over a decade. We were able to locate many refugees who claim to have found home, life and work in Anogia. Samir, a 26-year-old from Afghanistan has been living in Anogia 11 years now working as a farmer, but, lately, he sings in Greek songs written and composed for him by a famous artist of the community.

“Mr. Tayyip Erdogan didn’t end up attacking Syria, at least not at the beginning of 2019, and although it took almost four months to acquire a shooting permit in Turkey, we were fully compensated. In Kilis, the only little town that refugees have outnumbered the locals, Turks and Syrians live together in harmony. The local authorities encourage the Turkish-Syrian enterprise, support Syrian organizations like Kareemat, a women’s center run by Najjlla, a women’s rights activist. Everyday life, friendships, mixed weddings and solidarity to the refugees, because ‘Syrians are our brothers and dislocation can happen to all of us, anytime.’”

Astrinaki said, “Small is Beautiful (SB) aims at shifting the narrative in both content and form. The majority of European film productions with and about refugees after 2010 and mostly after 2015, year that marked the refugee ‘crisis,’ tell stories of harsh refugee journeys and/or their inhumane detention in refugee camps, thus keep problematizing the refugees. The film focuses on what European and national policies should have focused from refugee reception: integration. At the same time, the ‘white saviors’ perspective is what’s mostly presented, frequently in talking-heads documentaries, employing manipulating directors voice-overs, The protagonists in SB are the refugees themselves, their own voice over when needed, their working life and activities in welcoming communities that can show the way; because wars never stop, but neither human mobility.”

Astrinaki also curates NYU’s Greek Cinema Today screening series which presents the unique vision of contemporary Greek filmmakers.

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