Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010: 'The Unreturned'

Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, about 4.7 million Iraqis have fled the country. Less than ten percent have returned.

The Unreturned

Director: Nathan Fisher
Official site

One of the most recurrent and unsolvable problems of the modern world remains that of the refugee. Almost nowhere is their plight more pressing than in the cities of Jordan and Syria, where millions of Iraqis fled in the years of chaos and internecine bloodshed that followed the United States invaded. Nathan Fisher's heartfelt documentary shows what these refugees are going through after the initial shock of moving to a new country and finds that for the most part, they are in limbo.

A large percentage of Iraqi refugees are from the professional class, as evidenced in the subjects whom Fisher follows: a female medical researcher, a voluble and well-known Baghdad chef, an engineer, and a likeably enthusiastic English teacher. Almost none of them can find any work in their adopted homes. A clown troupe, two of whose members were murdered back in Iraq, now perform for fellow refugees while they wait to receive United Nations certification. One shame-faced family is forced to send their young son out on the street to sell food to kids his age who are going to school.

Too frightened to return to their home country, which so many fled because of religious persecution or death threats, unable at first to get visas to the U.S. (even the English teacher, a one-time interpreter who shows off an American flag signed by the soldiers he worked with), and generally given no help by an overwhelmed U.N. staff, the refugees are left with almost nowhere to go. In a perverse cycle, these highly educated workers are precisely the people needed to help rebuild and stabilized their home country, which they can't return to until it's stabilized.

Caught between the devil they know and they devil they don't, the refugees sometimes explode in frustration at how the Americans could have so perfectly ruined their country. More often than not, though, they struggle with as much as dignity as they can muster. "Everything is blurry for us Iraqis," one says, smartly summing up a situation that's as frustrating as it is dire.

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