“I lost my family in the explosions. Please stop the bombing.”
These are the words of one of the refugees featured in Safe Passage, a nine-minute documentary created and produced by College of Liberal Arts senior Andrea Batarse ’17 and her best friend Emily Main ’17, a Liberal Arts graduate and current Peace Corps volunteer. For one month, Batarse and Main interviewed refugees in France and Greece in an effort to show the refugees as human individuals, rather than a monolithic “other.”
The film project was funded by a $5,000 Student Media Grant from the Texas A&M University Center for Conflict and Development (ConDev). This competitive photojournalism award enables students to highlight conflict-related issues around the world through photography and storytelling. The grant allowed Batarse to pursue the project while also earning an internship credit.
Kelly Prendergast, the communications manager for ConDev, helps select the grant’s recipient.
“What stood out to me was Ms. Batarse’s overwhelming enthusiasm,” Prendergast said. “She demonstrated a clear passion for the subject, and she had taken concrete steps to combat the refugee crisis before there was any indication that we would even support her project…she was determined to make a difference.”
What’s known as the “European refugee crisis” began in 2015 when people began fleeing the regions of southern and eastern Europe to seek asylum in the countries of the European Union. The reasons behind the migration range from escaping ISIS to escaping Ebola, and everything in between.
“We met people from 14 different countries, from all professions and all economic backgrounds,” Batarse said. “They all had different reasons for leaving, and now they can’t go back. They’ve lost their homes and families; they’ve lost everything.”
Refugee camps were established around Europe to accommodate asylum-seekers, but they quickly became overcrowded and under-supported. In some places, unsanctioned slums sprung up. One of these was “The Jungle” in Calais, France, which served as a filming location for Batarse and Main and was recently destroyed by the French government.
“The people we met were just the epitome of humanity,” Batarse said. “All the goodness of humanity was in these refugees. They’d gone through the craziest trauma you could think of and were still so kind and humble. Their graciousness was unreal.”
Batarse and Main also visited the Lesvos Solidarity—Pikpa refugee camp in Lesvos, Greece. It once served as a summer camp for children but became a refugee base in 2012. Pikpa is one of three camps in Lesvos and is the only “open” camp; the other two camps are closed to the public and don’t allow media coverage. One of these closed camps is Moria, which is known for inhumane conditions and policemen who practice racial profiling when distributing food and supplies.
“I saw videos from Moria, of children locked in fenced areas, shouting and yelling to be freed,” Batarse said. “The corruption was so shockingly high.”
This was not Batarse’s first experience with refugees. The daughter of immigrants herself, she volunteered with refugees in Houston her freshman year.
“On my last day of volunteering, the woman in charge of the volunteer program said to me, ‘If any of this means anything to you, you’ll do something.’ A seed was planted,” she said.
Months later, she and her friends formed a website called Refuge, which provided childhood refugees with access to education through the sale of handmade bracelets. The website has since transitioned to Be Refuge, a blog geared towards millennials and dedicated to informing them about refugees, immigration, and policy.
“After graduation, I’d love to create programs on how to educate children who are in that situation,” Batarse said. “There’s 65 million refugees, and half of them are children—with passion and hopes and dreams and ambition. Education should be a basic right.”
Apart from her own personal experience with immigrants, she credits the college for instilling her desire to help others.
“Liberal Arts has given me such an interdisciplinary education,” she said. “I have been able to take classes in so many departments around campus…it’s surreal how it’s impacted my life because it makes you think differently.”
Batarse also said she is thankful to the college for this life-changing opportunity.
“The people I’ve met are the most influential and the most kind,” she said. “This experience has shown me there is so much more good than there is bad. If we can focus in on that, we can really make a difference. There is always hope.”
This story was originally posted on the College of Liberal Arts website.