Cooking makes us miss Iraq. Even a song on TV makes us cry.
—Abu Abbas, The Unreturned
“A refugee is somebody like you, somebody who lost everything for one minute and found himself in a death camp.” Standing before an audience whose dinner tables feature white cloths and fine silverware, Rose Mapendo tells her story slowly, carefully, and for a moment, tearfully. Her listeners sit quietly as she remembers horrors—beatings, rapes, and tortures, as well as birthing twins in a refugee camp, where “it was dark, no light… everything is dirty.” Displaced during the war between the Congolese government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Rose and thousands of other refugees survived. Now, she says, “I know the meaning of help, even if it’s just a glass of water from someone.”
Since she emerged from the camp with nine of her 10 children, Rose has relocated to Phoenix, AZ and tried to help others. A key component in this process has been forgiveness, as Rose, now ambassador for the humanitarian organization, Mapendo International, shares her story and draws lessons from it. Still, as revealed in the documentary Pushing the Elephant, her own hardest lesson involves her daughter Nangabire, whom Rose was unable to bring with her. As the film begins, Nangabire, now 17 years old, moves to Phoenix, where she and her mother must reconnect after years of separation and trauma.
Even as Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel’s film considers Rose’s own harrowing story, it is also, as she suggests, a story about ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. In this, Pushing the Elephant is like The Unreturned, both screened at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. Though the films are obviously different—Davenport and Mandel keep focused on one family’s experience and Nathan Fisher follows several refugees from the war in Iraq—they also make similar cases, that people who are forced to flee their homes are both forgotten and emblematic.
Mapendo’s efforts to reconnect with Nangabire illustrate this dilemma acutely. If early scenes in the film show Rose at work, traveling from one high-profile appearance to another, encouraging and embodying forgiveness around the globe, at home she’s fretful, anticipating her daughter’s arrival. Her other children, including her college-bound son John, shoot basketballs and ride skateboards in the driveway, John describes only sketchy images of his past, before the camp. “I remember we used to live in a house,” he says, now broad-shouldered and athletic. “I can’t remember if I had friends. Of course, I had friends. I know I have another sister that I’ve never met.”
Rose’s memories of the camp are specific. “My children, each one have a story,” she says, “We have some story maybe we never share.” These stories live inside, unexpressed but sometimes disruptive. She remembers that one young son “asked me, ‘Why we are dying, you cannot give us food?’” And yet, even when she had nothing to give them, even when soldiers beat John and raped another daughter, Aimee, Mapendo explains, she comforted her children, because that’s what a mother must do.
But as she’s repeatedly able to forgive the others who so abused her and her family, Mapendo is less assured as she faces forgiving herself. Indeed, she takes on her most daunting journey, back to Congo, once Nangabire comes to Phoenix. Following their emotional reunion and untold hours hugging, smiling and reassuring one another, and following Nangabire’s enrollment in classes, she insists her return will help others, women who have suffered as she has. Though Rose is determined, John worries, fearful of what Congo represents for his family: here again, Pushing the Elephant underscores the lingering effects of trauma and displacement, the lingering distrust and anxiety and the work needed to survive.
The Unreturned also shows ongoing consequences, in daily lives shaped by frustration and lost hopes. The movie opens with statistics: since the war’s start in 2003, 4.7 million Iraqis have fled the country, only 9% have returned. Most have gone to Syria and Jordan, with smaller numbers landing in Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, and the Gulf. Some 40% of these refugees are middle class. Laurens Jolles, UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Syria, notes that the exodus of lawyers, professors, architects, and doctors has left Iraq unable to rebuild basic services, from electricity and sanitation to education and health care.
As useful as their experience may be, however, refugees rarely find comparable jobs in their new locations. The Unreturned, filmed in Syria and Jordan in 2008, shows interviews at the UNHCR Registration Center in Damascus, where a couple of clowns are entertaining children while adults express frustrations that the “free of charge” services are slow to come and not nearly enough.
The sense of oppression continues as the scene cuts to a low-angle shot, looking through a fence at a bleak apartment building, Maher, once an electrical engineer with two shops in Baghdad, now sits on his sofa in Amman, Jordan, repairing his hairdryer. “Iraq underwent a lot of destruction and grave mistakes,” he declares. He now regrets a decision to work for the Americans, even if it was only for the money. Once the insurgents found out, Maher says, and the “Mahdi Army killed 50 Sunni families in our neighborhood,” he had no option but to leave, being Sunni. Though their savings are nearly gone now, “We can’t go back,” he says, as the camera pans over photos of his smiling family in their former backyard.
Najlaa, once a celebrated medical researcher, now lives with her brother’s family in Amman. To ease her own frustrations, Najlaa is helping to run The Bird’s Nest, a center for all Iraqis to come together. When other members of the group decide they want to limit the center to Christians, Najlaa, herself a Christian, is disillusioned. “This is not my real life,” she says, “I feel as if I’m in another world.” Though she understands the value of “new experience in another field,” she says, and she’s glad to help people, the work she’s doing now “takes me away from my medical career, which I love and would rather be doing.” At last, she sighs, “I want my life back. Here I am dead, I cannot live it.” Her face is weary beyond words.
Like Mapendo in Pushing the Elephant, Najlaa wants to help. But her distress overwhelms her desire. Unlike Rose, who is celebrated in DC as 2009’s Humanitarian of the Year (with Angelina Jolie in the audience), Najlaa feels both unrecognized and unable to return,, and increasingly unable to help.
Pushing the Elephant