I'm A Filmmaker Who Documented A Family In Syria. I Never Imagined I'd Orchestrate Their Escape.

"I felt myself dancing on the line between my role as a filmmaker, wanting to capture her real life, and my responsibility as a human being, wanting to help her."
The author (third from left) with Hanadi (second from right) and her daughters, Limar, Bissan and Ritaj (far left, second left and far right) at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva in 2018.
The author (third from left) with Hanadi (second from right) and her daughters, Limar, Bissan and Ritaj (far left, second left and far right) at the U.N. headquarters in Geneva in 2018.
Reilly Dowd Productions, LLC

It was a crisp April morning. Above perfectly manicured tulips, the Swiss flag fluttered in the breeze. A motorcade of black Mercedes-Benzes with tinted windows and diplomatic plates drove by me. Before the all-too-familiar badged guard approached asking for my film permit, I zoomed in on Hanadi, the lead subject of my documentary film, as she walked toward the security entrance of the United Nations’ European headquarters. Following closely behind her were her three young daughters: Ritaj, Bissan and Limar.

“Look! Plane! Plane!” screamed 5-year-old Limar, pointing to the sky. As I panned my camera upward, I saw a Lufthansa flight making its final descent into Geneva. I could hear Limar’s small footsteps becoming quieter as she ran to hide. For a girl who had spent the majority of her life inside Syria, planes in the sky, and especially ones that fly low, have a deadly purpose.

It was only 72 hours before that I was in California, and Hanadi and her girls were in Daraa, a region of southern Syria that has been brutally targeted by both Russian and Syrian airstrikes. Now, Hanadi was set to testify before a panel of human rights experts about a war that had robbed her of her husband and forever changed the course of her life.

***

I began following Hanadi’s story in 2015, when we were both 25 years old and clueless about where this project would take us — both as individuals and as friends.

Back then, I was beginning my journalism career in Washington when I decided to document a group of professional clowns on their mission to spread joy to children in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp — just a few miles from Syria’s southern border. That’s where I met Hanadi, who was working in an NGO youth center.

At the time, I could not have imagined that a film intended to be about laughter and healing would later lead me to orchestrate a family’s escape from Syria.

Six months into production, I found out via Facebook’s Messenger that Hanadi would be returning to Syria with her girls. Every expert I spoke to told me this was a dangerous decision. Hanadi knew it, but she had made up her mind. It had been nearly three years since her husband was taken in an early morning raid by the regime of President Bashar Assad. She needed to find out if he was still alive.

The author films with group of children in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in 2016.
The author films with group of children in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in 2016.
Reilly Dowd Productions, LLC

I decided it wasn’t my place to advise her. I told myself that I was just there to capture her life — not to influence it. As I filmed the bus leaving the camp in Jordan, Ritaj, Bissan and Limar waved excitedly through the dusty window. I had little confidence that their lives would improve — and feared that this could well be the last time I’d ever see them alive.

Within weeks, airstrikes began hitting Hanadi’s town. One day, she sent me a picture of Limar, her head wrapped in bandage, her lip swollen and her face covered in blood. She’d been hit by a car. By this point, most of the doctors had already fled and the local hospital had been bombed, so there was nowhere to take her for medical care.

After this, Hanadi repeatedly asked for my help to try to get them out of Syria.

For more than a year, I continued to document Hanadi’s life with the help of citizen journalists in Syria. Her situation quickly went from bad to worse. In December 2016, after a civilian-targeted barrel bomb was dropped 50 meters (about 55 yards) from Hanadi’s home, she spoke of the psychological trauma that she and her girls were now dealing with.

As fears grew over airstrikes and the rumored expansion of a nearby territory run by the self-declared Islamic State group, she requested that I blur her face and change her name. “You cannot release this film as long as I’m in Syria,” she told me. “I will end up shredded.”

For the first time, I felt myself dancing on the line between my role as a filmmaker, wanting to capture her real life, and my responsibility as a human being, wanting to help her. I think all documentary filmmakers question that line — but when the film itself could end up getting that subject killed, I felt a duty to step in and try to get Hanadi and her children out.

This was a uniquely humbling endeavor. By that point, nearly half of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million people had been displaced. I’d spent months reaching out to asylum lawyers, diplomats, NGOs and government organizations. I was mostly met with brick wall after brick wall.

Then one morning, in the spring of 2018, I received an email from a group that works on enforced or involuntary disappearances within the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The letter came in response to a request that Hanadi and I had submitted more than a year prior. It stated that the group had considered Hanadi’s case and transmitted it to the Syrian government, expressing its hope that appropriate investigations would be carried out to clarify the fate of her husband and protect his rights. At the end of the email, there was an invitation to testify to the panel.

A few days later, I was told that I would be given nearly two hours to present Hanadi’s case. I responded that Hanadi should be the one to testify. But the U.N. required copies of her and her daughters’ passports. We were now just over two weeks out from the meeting — and I knew they didn’t have passports.

The author shoots with Hanadi and her daughters.
The author shoots with Hanadi and her daughters.
Reilly Dowd Productions, LLC

At this point, Hanadi had been back in Syria for 2 1/2 years. I didn’t know if she wanted to start a new life in Europe, given the opportunity. And considering my numerous failed attempts, I presumed she was beginning to give up hope that I could really make it happen.

But there was a certain blind trust we had in one another. And when it came time to make a decision, we were both ready.

I contacted Hanadi over WhatsApp and included my translator, a Syrian named Yazan. I asked Hanadi to do the nearly impossible: go to the Syrian government offices in Damascus, purchase four of the world’s most expensive passports, and send me copies within 24 hours ― at the very time that my own country’s president was reportedly planning to bomb regime centers in the capital in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack.

We both knew that this was her chance ― and maybe her only chance. Hanadi decided to go.

On WhatsApp, one gray check means that your message was sent. Two gray checks mean that your message was received but not yet read. And two blue checks mean that your message was received and read. This particular message stayed at one gray check for nearly two days.

While I began to fear the worst, I got an email from the U.N. in Geneva. “If she doesn’t have a passport, I am afraid it will be too late now to get a visa as the visa process usually takes 2-3 weeks,” it said. “In addition, we don’t want her to take risks to travel to Damascus.”

At last, a WhatsApp whistle sounded on my phone. “I am fine, thank God,” wrote Hanadi. “I got the passports.” As it would happen several times throughout the next two weeks, Hanadi had pulled off the impossible.

***

Hanadi’s town is about 120 miles southeast of Beirut. It’s a route that runs through Damascus and has numerous checkpoints operated by both rebel groups and the Assad regime. After nightfall, it becomes increasingly perilous to make this journey, especially for women.

It was almost 10 p.m. for Hanadi when I asked her if she could get on an 8:10 a.m. flight out of Beirut the next morning. Hanadi had never flown. But this was her chance — and we both knew it. I told her to head for the Syria-Lebanon border and, on the way, print and sign a series of documents ranging from flight tickets to U.N. letters to visa forms.

From left to right: Limar, Bissan and Ritaj.
From left to right: Limar, Bissan and Ritaj.
Reilly Dowd Productions, LLC

For hours, my WhatsApp messages would sit idly beside the dreaded single gray checkmark. But as I approached Oakland’s airport, the checkmarks turned blue. No time for Yazan — I copied and pasted her Arabic text into Google Translate. “At the Lebanon Border,” it read. She did it.

I later learned that when Hanadi got my message, she’d called her uncle, who took her on his moped to find the one person they knew who transports people to Lebanon. When they found him, he called the Syrian regime checkpoint and arranged for passage. Night had fallen. Hanadi was told she had 15 minutes to pick up the girls, pack and get to the checkpoint.

The driver charged Hanadi 150,000 Syrian pounds (about $350 at the time) to take them to Beirut. This fee would include payments to various regime-controlled checkpoints. They arrived at the Lebanese border around 2 a.m., where Hanadi spent the rest of her cash on a $50 entrance fee. From that point until Geneva, she would be traveling without a penny.

As I was boarding my flight in California, I knew I’d be in the air for the next 12 hours — a window of time littered with opportunities for everything to go wrong. By then, I’d involved various NGOs, innumerable offices of the U.N., and the governments of the United States, Lebanon, Jordan, Italy and Switzerland.

I arrived in Geneva — all alone. Less than an hour before Hanadi’s flight was scheduled to land, I met a local cameraperson whom my producer found online the day before. We chugged some espresso, signed a contract and headed back to the airport. About 15 minutes later, I hired a translator, my Arabic-speaking taxi driver.

At the Geneva airport, I still didn’t know if Hanadi and her girls would be on the flight. As they walked through the sliding doors out of the baggage claim area, Hanadi was filled with an even mixture of exuberance and fear. It was only then that I realized the enormous sense of trust she had placed in me. She’d been traveling for more than 48 hours and was in the same outfit she’d had on when I told her to head to the Lebanese border.

In her hands, she held four passports and one small blue duffle bag filled with two days of outfits for her and the girls, including their gold sequin belts and pink flower headbands.

***

The next morning was our testimony.

Before we entered through security, I pointed to Google Translate on my phone to ask her what being at the U.N. meant to her. “I am going to represent the women of Syria. Syrian women have suffered greatly during the crisis, losing husbands, children, fathers, and brothers,” she said confidently, but with a lump in her throat. “Women will continue to suffer as long as the situation remains... But the Syrian woman has proved her worth, proved her power, proved that she can work, that she can live and that she can survive.”

The author (right) and Hanadi at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in 2016.
The author (right) and Hanadi at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan in 2016.
Reilly Dowd Productions, LLC

I didn’t know exactly what she had said in that moment. But I knew that this was the same person who, four years earlier in Zaatari refugee camp during our very first interview, told me that she needed someone to hear her, someone to understand what she had been through. She said that she wanted to share her story in my documentary in the hope that one day, it might inspire others.

As we entered the testimony chamber, above us were several booths with windows where interpreters would translate Hanadi’s story into multiple different languages. As she sat down and was instructed on how to speak into the microphone, I was asked to turn off my camera. The meeting, which was completely off the record, lasted over an hour. She was heard.

***

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.” I now know what he meant. Making this film was equal parts humbling and rewarding. It changed me as a person and as a storyteller.

There were so many times — late nights in the editing room, cold mornings setting up my tripod alone in a refugee camp — when I wanted to force an ending, to will a three-act structure into being. This pressure was heightened when Syria was so much in the news and the public consciousness.

But the truth was, the story wasn’t over. Life hadn’t happened yet. As a first-time filmmaker, I learned the importance of having the confidence to follow a story through until its natural conclusion.

I began this documentary with the dream that it would have an impact. And it did. Hanadi and her girls have since started a new life in Berlin, where they are seeking asylum. That’s something I never could have imagined when I set out to make this film. So in that way, it had an entirely unexpected impact on one family’s life.

In my own life, I saw the power of the mother-daughter relationship and how that bond, and a single mother’s determination to protect it, is stronger than almost anything. Seeing that through Hanadi’s eyes and capturing that fight on film is what makes this story powerful. What is deeply personal is universal.

Hanadi’s story is just one from more than 90 million people who are displaced around the world today. Whether the cause is war or climate change, there is no end in sight to the ongoing reality of statelessness. In watching ”Dreams of Daraa,” my hope is that audiences see a human story behind the daunting numbers that so often dominate our 24-hour news cycle.

With knowledge and deeply personal journeys, we can combat fear and misinformation. We can start to see ourselves as not so different from our brothers and sisters who are suffering around the world.

Hanadi will be attending the first in-person screening of ”Dreams of Daraa during Oregon’s Portland Film Festival on Oct. 19 and 20. To learn more about the film and Hanadi’s remarkable journey, visit dreamsofdaraa.com.

M. Reilly Dowd is the director and producer of the feature documentary film “Dreams of Daraa.” The film is a co-production with ITVS, the leading provider of independently produced programs for PBS. In 2021, Dreams of Daraa had a national broadcast on PBS, making it available to nearly 200 million people across the United States. In producing this film, Dowd was a fellow in the Fledgling Engagement Lab, where she collaborated with other documentary film teams to design a social impact campaign focused on Syrian women and girls. Dowd is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where she focused her studies on investigative journalism and international politics. She has worked at CNN, ABC News, Al Jazeera America and The Fiscal Times, as well as for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence. In 2020, Dowd received an MBA from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. The following year, Dowd received her MFA degree from the prestigious Peter Stark Producing Program of USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

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