I want to share from my heart my immigration story that is very similar to this film. “Midnight Traveler” (2019) is not only a documentary film that shows a story of a family’s migration, but it also is the story of millions of Afghans who flee Afghanistan each year because it is not a safe place to live anymore.
Because of the Soviet-Afghan war, my family moved to Iran when I was four years old. I went to an elementary school there at the age of six. We were supposed to return to our home country, Afghanistan, after the war. That conflict lasted more than nine years, starting in December of 1979. Many people were killed during this war, and millions of Afghans fled the country as refugees. Even after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1998, the civil war began, and then the Taliban came in, and Afghanistan experienced war after war. As such, my family decided to stay in Iran as refugees.
I remember that we faced challenges for being refugees in Iran. Although I had very good teachers and professors and friends there, the policies applied for refugees were just like immigration legislation in other parts of the world. After I got a Bachelor’s degree, I had to make a decision either to stay in Iran without any job and a real-life I deserved, or to return to Afghanistan where I could make my life. I did not have any good images of my home country even after the Taliban left, yet I decided to return to Kabul and make my life there. I left Iran in 2012 and had a couple of temporary jobs. I was very careful to not hang out very much. I could join my friends to go to Art Café (Café Honar in Dari) to have tea and cake and listen to live music after work. I used to go to that cafe in 2014, but as soon as it was threatened by the Taliban, my friends and I refused to go there anymore. We knew that the café was threatened because women had more freedom there. I met some of the young filmmakers and artists there, including Hassan Fazili; however, he is just my Facebook friend since we did not have a chance to meet in person.
In 2014, I established an NGO named Educational Support and Development Organization of Afghanistan (ESDOA) and it focuses on bringing educational opportunities to rural Afghans, especially for women. Meanwhile, I was working on my application to continue my education in the United States. Finally, I was granted admission to the United States in 2019 and came here to study Women and Gender Studies at Tompkins Cortland Community College near Ithaca, NY.
After watching the documentary film “Midnight Traveler,” directed by Hassan Fazili, I can relate to the film since my family fled to Iran when Afghanistan was occupied by the Soviet Union and was not safe anymore. I remember waiting at the border to be accepted by the UNHCR for safe asylum in Iran. I remember that I was just like Zahra, playing with other kids around our tent at the camp at the border of Iran. I see that children are all the same worldwide. They laugh, dance, get bored, and they understand the situation they are in: they understand gangs, they experience fear, they learn how to survive. Sometimes they even have to steal food or fruit when they are hungry! They play and they do not care where they are or what is going on in the world. Later, when I grew up, my mother told me that she was very worried to reach our destination safely.
I can also observe gender norms in Afghan women in this film when the woman talks about her hijab or she tries to cover her breast with her small scarf! I understand when they face danger, and they struggle to find a word in English: HELP! I have heard this word hundreds of times.
[The Fazili family’s] journey had started from Mazar-e-Sharif. I know that city because I took the risk of traveling there twice. Then they passed through Iran, where I grew up. I could feel the entire film with my heart because it was what I can relate to most of my life as a migrant.
Hassan Fazili became a filmmaker (rather than a mullah), and that is much more helpful to change people's opinions, perspectives, and lives. All humans need and deserve to live in a peaceful place. Women especially should have the right to choose their lifestyles and have freedom. I know so many "Midnight Travelers" and I hope that they can reach the peaceful places they deserve! It was one of the best films I have ever watched about migration and its risks and the policies that put human lives in danger. I am hoping that this film contributes to changing immigration policies worldwide!
Author’s Note: I want to thank my professor and adviser Angela Palumbo deeply for what she taught and encouraged me during this semester in the course "Intercultural Communication"! Without her help, I would not be able to have a different and knowledgeable look at this film regarding migration, gender, and different cultures and communication. And, I appreciate Professor Christina Stavenhagen-Helgren for her help and connecting me to the Michigan Theater for this great opportunity!
Professor Angela Palumbo is Chair of the International Studies A.S. degree program and the English as a Second Language Department at Tompkins Cortland Community College, and Professor Christina Stavenhagen-Helgren is a Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Tompkins Cortland Community College.