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《 4.1 Miles 》—Saving at the verge of demise

 【Written by: Florence】

In hours, the world will tune to the 89th round of sparkles and glamor when Hollywood's front and back stage aficionados receive their dream honors in the movie business.

I close my eyes and see different glitters from the faraway Aegean, a famous and romantic getaway shiny sheet of water surrounded by some of East Europe's most beautiful terrains while neighboring some of the most politically torn places.

With fate, the Aegean glitters collide with the glamor at the Oscars, adding a tinge of humanity to oft-politically wired annual event. 

Lesbos of Sikaminias, a Greek island in the north Aegean off the coast of Turkey, joined the Oscars race as the little expected scene of a little known short documentary – "4.1 miles".

Directed by Daphne Matziaraki, an ethnic Greek studying in the University of California, Berkeley, "4.1 miles" is a story of Lesbos's coastal guard, Kyriakos Papadopoulos's rescue of countless refugees attempting to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Though Athens is another 285 miles away and landing elsewhere in Europe is another unknown journey, they continued to flood to this nearby island just 4.1 miles off the Turkish coast.

It was 2015. Some 600,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan….escaped the atrocities of civil wars and bombs and killings and shootings via Turkey, loading themselves into flimsy boats, fighting for their lives against the rocky waves and the roaring winds in the otherwise beautiful water. While some luckily made it, others perished en route. Remember 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi tragically dead on the Turkish beach?

With the raging Syrian War, many fled. But countless did not make it to the other side. 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi dead on the Turkish beach and caught the attention of people around the world.

Leading a crew of ten, Captain Papadopoulos heads a routine seafaring border patrol. Unequipped for rescues, the captain, however, took up the daunting and overwhelming tasks every time a call came in.

He just could not turn away from the sea of people floating in the water struggling for their lives, colorful dots from a distance from their life jackets. "When you see people floating out there, you see the war they saw".

He may be seen as one of those reluctant heroes. But in his mind, while he knew the world should know and come to help, at the critical moment in the critical place before any assistance was in sight, he simply refused to skip any mission to save lives. He simply could not see them drown without trying…..

One by one, the crew pulled the people from the rough sea. 200 people in an hour at times. Over 200,000 in October alone.

A little island of 630 square miles and just over 86,000 residents of a country with deep economic troubles, Lesbos quickly became a makeshift refugee center with residents flocking to help with anything they could offer.  It marked the turning point of so many people's lives.

Here is the short documentary.

"4.1 miles" is one of the five short films nominated for Best Documentary (Short Subject), along with two others "The White Helmets" and "Watani" – My Homeland", sharing similar themes of the Syrian plight amidst one of the most appalling atrocities in human history particularly in Aleppo.

Rather rudimentary as a student project, "4.1 miles" certainly lacks lush cinematic elements for the Oscars race. I cried, nonetheless, while I watched it.

So what is a "refugee"?

An unfortunate, loathsome "new" identity for those who flee their countries from wars or persecutions or catastrophes. A label of despair and dire plight. Something that those of us living in comfort and safety can never truly understand.

But if we can imagine a change in fate – say, you lost everything – EVERYTHING. It no longer matters how much of a unique elite you once were, you are no longer anybody.

Or imagine you suddenly got ripped from your expensive clothing and became naked.

You are ripped of all you think you are. You are ripped of your dignity.

Can we imagine that?

I wonder if it's people's instinct to turn a cold face to those in need.

Remember Superstorm Sandy in 2012 when a mother of two young boys in Staten Island desperately banging on people's doors for help but was turned away? She lost both sons to the strong storm. And she was not even a refugee, just someone in dire need at the worst possible time.

Remember President Roosevelt turning away St Louis in 1939, leaving over 900 Jewish refugees who fled the Holocaust to turn back and many ended up being killed in Holocaust.

We were stiff-hearted from compassion and made a dent in our morality that shames the core of humanity and the progress of civilization. 

And some argue that not helping is not a crime. We have our own problems. Too many of them that we cannot help….. 

But then there are those who embraced humanity and did help. Many Canadian families opened their homes to refugees from Syria and other places. They helped them overcome the nightmare of horrible wars, learn the English language and adjust to their new lives in a foreign land. Some churches in the US tried to sponsor refugee families and help them settle down in a new country until Trump's travel ban halted such humanitarian acts.

Some mock the aftermath of being good Samaritans, when a teenage Afghan refugee raped and murdered a young German girl at the end of last year. Our good intention can be hijacked even in simple acts of sympathy, for example, in the case of Hong Kong, in giving money to monks begging for money, only to find they are fake Shao Lin monks since the real ones do not beg.

Betrayals lead to caution. Refugees are bad. And then we forget crimes from home grown villains.

Not to underestimate the cultural difference, refugees are people, just like us. They are just displaced, mostly traumatically. That, however, does not make them "good" people. Nor "bad" people. Just like we have good and bad people in our own communities, there are good and bad refugees. Anyone committing crimes, refugees or local, are subject to justice.

In a refugee-free world, do we ban all men from walking the streets because a few of them raped or killed women there?

Refugee is a complex issue and if in large numbers, they do impact societies. Yet they don't have to be seen as liabilities, but rather, assets, contributing to the betterment of their new homes.

Albert Einstein, Nikolas Tesla, Madeline Albright, Gloria Estefan, Henry Kissinger, Maurice and Charles Saatchi, Piet Mondrian, Freddy Mercury, Karl Marx…….are all refugees. Nicholas Kristof of New York Times recently revealed that he is descendant of a refugee.

The war in Syria may have ended, but the problem has not. Broken families and lost lives would never come back. Amidst an ever chaotic and violent world, people in need are on the rise.

There are ample reasons to reject them; and acceptance means grand challenges. But when we ask why we need to be good people, perhaps we can reflect upon our own experiences – have we not experienced being in devastation and someone coming along giving a helping hand?

Life is full of unknowns. And we live only once. The decision is not about whether we help or not. It's rather about the kind of person we choose to be. And the kind of country we want this to be.