In 2002, Deborah DeWinter, longtime resident of Port Washington, became executive director of FilmAid International, an amazing organization that brings hope, education, inspiration and even laughter to refugees around the world. In May of this year DeWinter visited Kakuma, a refugee camp in Northern Kenya where FilmAid is making a dramatic difference in the lives of 83,000 refugees. After seeing the huge success of the project in Kakuma, DeWinter renewed her six-month contract with FilmAid, which was due to end in July, and now plans to create a local advisory committee of Port Washington residents.
FilmAid was started in 1999 by Caroline Baron, a movie producer who grew up on Long Island. Baron was very moved by a radio report that said one of the greatest hardships refugees face, and one that is rarely addressed, is the soul-destroying monotony of day-to-day survival in the camps. Lack of stimulation reduces the refugees' spirits a little each day and leaves their imaginations free to relive the horror of the violent events that ripped apart their lives. Within six weeks Baron and a crew of volunteers, with equipment mostly donated or paid for by Hollywood contacts, were in Macedonia with a mobile outdoor unit taking movies to the camps and bringing entertainment and temporary mental respite to the Kosovar refugees. Baron's experiment was an unparalleled success, and as FilmAid traveled from camp to camp as many as 4,000 refugees turned out each night for the screenings. FilmAid provided not only entertainment, which in itself is extremely important for people who have no other source of distraction, but also education and the ability to bring warring factions together.
When the refugees in Macedonia returned to their homes FilmAid looked to see where next they could provide relief. In Africa they found refugees in even more desperate need of psychological sustenance, having survived in limbo, in refugee camps, for ten years and more. By now FilmAid had the attention and support not just of Hollywood but also important organizations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
DeWinter traveled to Kakuma where the FilmAid team had expected to work for six months before transferring the staff and equipment to other camps in Tanzania. She had expected to be questioned by some detractors as to why money should be spent on films and equipment when people are struggling to survive and basic needs such as food and water are limited. What she heard was an incredibly positive response not only from the refugees but also from more than 40 community leaders and all the other aid agencies working in the camp. They all had the same things to say: thank you for coming here, what a huge difference FilmAid has made and please find a way to stay and continue the work you are doing. DeWinter said, "The most dramatic difference the films make is providing nourishment for the souls of the refugees. These are people who have experienced horrific events, have lost everything and are living in limbo with no mental stimulation. Life revolves around collecting firewood, water and other necessities and making it from day to day with no hope or expectations for the future. The movies bring relief, laughter and a distraction that is not provided in any other way."
At the Therapeutic Feeding Program Center in the camp, where mothers bring their seriously malnourished children for additional feedings, DeWinter saw mothers and infants staring into space with no signs of interaction and young children lying in a stupor at their feet. The pervading listlessness is not surprising as the women, along with their infants and young children, walk several miles every day to and from the center and then spend hours there, with nothing to do in-between the three or four supplemental feedings the infants desperately need. But on Monday as a movie began to be shown the women began to chatter, the children awoke and laughed and played together and previously inert babies began to suckle. DeWinter said, " Who would believe that Winnie-the-Pooh could mean life or death for infants." Sadly with so many organizations wanting the services of FilmAid, the feeding program only gets movies shown once a week.
Sensory stimulation is not the only benefit. In between the entertainment, educational shorts are shown that advise about AIDS, land mines, domestic violence and other issues that refugees need desperately to be made aware of. Public information about where the refugees can get assistance of all kinds is shared, which is not easy in these vast areas with thousands of refugees. A Somali community leader told FilmAid, "FilmAid brings unity to the camp. This is the only opportunity at the camp to gather people together from eight different nationalities, languages, cultures and religions to enjoy a common experience." Many of the people in the camps are from opposing groups and need encouragement to come together and talk through their differences so that when the day comes when they can return to their homelands the same violent conflicts do not start again. A community leader who had been present at a screening of the film, Mandela, told DeWinter "Before FilmAid came, people used to sit in groups and just talk about the war. Now they are talking about other issues and thinking about how Mandela addressed his country's problems."
Another important aspect of FilmAid is the Participatory Video Project (PVP), a course on filmmaking that has already had a graduating ceremony for 90 young refugees. According to DeWinter 50 percent of refugees are under 18 years of age and PVP provides these young people, who know little other than camp life, with a focus, teaches them important skills and gives a sense of purpose and self-esteem. Initially PVP targeted the young adults who are the future leaders of their communities and countries but health agencies and other organizations working in Kakuma, recognize the power of film to get their message across and are asking to be allowed to participate. As with all aspects of FilmAid more equipment and funding are required before PVP can be extended to include more youths and organizations.
Despite the efforts of many international groups the refugee situation around the world continues to worsen. DeWinter says there are now more than 35 million refugees around the world and less than 1percent of those will find escape from the camps in an accommodating country. Ten years ago America accepted an annual quota of 120,000 refugees, but today the number has been reduced to an all-time low of 70,000 and things are on hold due to the conflict in Afghanistan. Some countries have recently begun accepting refugees, and these include poorer nations such as Chile and Brazil in South America and Benin and Burkina-Faso in Africa. DeWinter said, "Although the number of refugees these countries can accommodate are few, it is symbolically phenomenal." She said that while their economies are poor and they have many of their own problems, many of the current leaders were themselves previously refugees and are now very committed. She said, "They are doing it simply because it is the right thing to do." DeWinter also noted that the African countries will accept extended families, a very important issue for many of the African refugees and one that other countries are not willing to accommodate.
FilmAid knows of many countries where it wants to reach out to the refugees, as soon as the resources and financing are available. In August it is time for the FilmAid team in Kakuma to transfer to Tanzania, where three camps are home to more than 138,000 refugees. It is hoped that instead a new team with all the ensuing equipment can be organized so that FilmAid can work in both countries concurrently. The UNHCR representative in Nairobi has asked FilmAid to find a way to expand their program to include Dadaab, a refugee camp 60 miles from the Somali border. An assessment mission has already taken place in Afghanistan, where the Wizard of Oz drew laughter and happiness from children who had probably never seen anything on the screen before and across the border in Peshawar, Pakistan more refugees languish waiting for stimulation from FilmAid.
Amazingly it only takes $500,000 per country to set the project up and as in Kakuma they can become almost self-reliant as refugees are trained to run the projectors and other equipment themselves. FilmAid has only two non-refugee members of staff on its payroll: Executive Director, Deborah DeWinter who oversees and coordinates the organization from America and East Africa Program Director, Natalia Tapies, who runs the programs in the field, organizing the refugee workforce and coordinating with local groups and aid agencies. In Kakuma 30 refugees have been trained and are paid to run the equipment throughout the camps while volunteers in America provide all the remaining support. Recently, DeWinter has been working from home due to lack of office space but hopes to soon move into an office on Broadway generously offered by HBO. She is equally thrilled that the team in Kakuma has just received a laptop, which means the entire staff and PVP members now have the grand total of two laptops to share. In Hollywood individuals and corporate giants have taken up the challenge and supporters include Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Julia Ormond, Paul Newman, Universal Studios, Warner Bros., Miramax Films and many more. Fund-raising events include star-studded film premieres and receptions with guest stars and Cheryl Crow hopes to do an informal concert on Long Island, an event that was cancelled due to 9-11.
DeWinter plans to use the local advisory committee in Port to organize more fundraisers and expects to have some star guests to help draw the crowds. People are needed to organize and even host such a fundraiser and there is a desperate need for someone with accounting skills who can prepare reports and keep FilmAid's finances straight. DeWinter said, "with the current basic annual budget being $1.8 million, there really isn't that much accounting to be done." People who do not have the time to be a part of the advisory committee can still help by donating urgently needed equipment including laptops, PCs, printers, phones, video cameras and even air-miles. As well as equipment FilmAid relies on cash donations from individuals and corporations to keep the films in the camps. FilmAid has grown from one woman's dream into an important and incredible organization and now Port Washington has an opportunity to have fun, be creative and help despairing refugees around the world.
For more information and to make donations contact FilmAid at 212 608-4400 or go to their web-site www.filmaidinternational.org