“In my experience, governments only do the right thing when it’s in their self-interest,” says Aaron Brown, by way of introducing his question to Jordan’s Interior Minister. “Why is it in America’s interest that Jordan is able to manage this crisis?” He’s talking about the crisis of Iraqi refugees—now some 2 million are displaced—and Eid Al Fayez offers up an unsurprising answer: Jordan is an ally for the U.S. in the war on terror. “We are against the fundamentalists, we are against the radicals. It’s for the interest of all the West that Jordan stay stable.” Brown leans in, his eyes narrow slightly, the scene cuts to a classroom in Amman, full of Iraqi children, illustrating exactly the best reason for the U.S. and Jordan to do the right thing. It’s so good to have Aaron Brown back again.
In the season finale for Wide Angle, airing 19 August, Brown is the journalist on camera for the first time since he took over hosting the series this year. In Iraqi Exodus, beautifully filmed by Tania Rahkmanova, he is much like you remember him—wry, insightful, and slightly sad. In this instance, he’s also on top of a story that has not yet piqued the interest of the mainstream press, a story that, as Brown notes, is underreported “because the consequences won’t appreciated for years to come.” The exodus will not only affect the immediate individuals and families, but also the economies and cultural infrastructures of Iraq and the nations that decide to welcome them or not. Thus far, no one has welcomed them, and thus far, the refugees remain in dire trouble.
The film opens on a dark street in Baghdad, as families pack up meager belongings and head off into the night. “They’re running away,” Brown narrates. They’re running from violence (both accidental and targeted), lack of work, and hopelessness. But their destinations are increasingly uncertain. When Jordan’s population increased some 8%, it closed its borders in 2006; recently, Syria, also facing crunches in educational, vocational, and basic needs resources, has tightened its border as well. The United States has only resettled some 2200 Iraqis stateside since 2003, despite repeated promises to speed up the process and especially to look after those who have risked their lives and families in order to support the U.S. war and occupation.
“This is a refugees crisis with out the refugee camps,” says Brown. In Amman, he speaks with a man in a café. Yusef, Brown observes, doesn’t look poor, like a stereotypical refugee. But he is bereft, a civil engineer unable to work legally in Jordan and unable to imagine that his situation will improve. “The Americans came—people of culture, science, and leadership—to teach us a type of leadership that’s better than what we had in Saddam Hussein’s time,” Yusef says, drawing on his cigarette. “But what’s happening now is unfortunate, not what we expected.”
What’s happening now involves longstanding religious and cultural conflicts: Sunnis against Shiias, Muslims against Christians, and, in the case of Nagab and Ziad, violent retribution because they are Mandians, a minority religion “older than Islam.” As Brown says, between 80 and 90% of the 60,000 Mandians who lived in Iraq have fled, in search of safety for their children and work. Ziad is unable to find even day labor on any regular basis in Jordan, however. In Iraq, he received a letter accusing him of homosexuality, adultery, and “black magic”; when he ignored it (“No way you’d leave your city and your home because of a piece of paper”), an explosion in front of his house left his two little girls injured. As Ziad and his family walk away from the camera, down a narrow street, Brown says, “Not long after this interview—with perhaps help from an email sent by us to the U.N. office—they received a call saying they’d be sent abroad for treatment.”
Though the film doesn’t say what happens for this burdened family, the footnote about Wide Angle‘s email is striking. While it’s likely that email was part of the team’s investigation of Ziad’s story, Brown’s phrasing doesn’t even feign traditional “objectivity.” Instead, he is increasingly forceful (though still subtle) in his shaping of the report. “What is the United States’ responsibility?”, he asks more than once. The story of Syrian journalist Rula Nasrallah may provide a model for a decent response. When she started doing a story on education, she learned that Iraqi refugees could not afford the bus fare to got to school, and so she put together a system where she works with 100 families, helping with education and food.
Rula’s effort is a model because she’s looking ahead, considering the effects of poverty on young people. Similarly, Jordan’s Queen Noor makes the case that this crisis is only a beginning. “No one can afford to have a huge number of people feeling alienated and humiliated and hopeless and desperate,” she says. And “many feel that the United States and Great Britain have a special responsibility because it was their policies in Iraq that resulted in these humanitarian consequences.”
But even as he tracks down causes, mistakes, and ongoing pain, Brown also finds resilience and perceptive analysis in his interview subjects. Two Iraqi targets of the insurgency, Hassan and Ibrahim, have opened a gym in Syria. They “train young Iraqis free of charge, narrates Brown over images of weightlifters at work, “desperately needed break from the boredom and loneliness of refugee life.” As Hassan puts it, “Training is a way to get rid of their depression and their anger.”
Speaking with a young boy in a classroom supported by an NGO in Amman, Brown tries to avoid such raw emotions, to discover a kind of childishness, where pride and joy might be possible. He asks what could be a silly question (“Are you the smartest boy in your class?”), but the child turns it around. “I’m going to school,” he says, “but some kids can’t, so I can’t judge. Maybe if they had the chance, they’d be smarter than me. I don’t know.” As Brown nods and also presses gently to learn the boy’s background, he reveals that here in Jordan he misses his friends but especially his father, who was kidnapped three years ago. “That’s sad,” murmurs Brown. “That’s hard.” Not only does he know when to ask a question, but he also knows when not to.