Razi Jafri is a Detroit-based documentary photographer, filmmaker, and producer whose work focuses on race, religion, immigration, human rights, and politics.
His recent documentary HAMTRAMCK, USA, premiered at SXSW and was broadcast on the PBS program America ReFramed. He’s currently working on a multimedia exhibit project HALAL METROPOLIS about Muslim visibility in southeast Michigan, and LOYALTY, a documentary film that explores what life is like for three Muslim chaplains in the US military.
Razi is a second year MFA candidate at the Stamps School of Art + Design. In 2021, Razi was awarded the GISC Summer Fellowship, he used this fellowship to assist him as he worked on a documentary in Seoul, Korea. Read on to hear in his own words what that experience was like.
In May of 2021, I traveled to South Korea to film a documentary about a small group of Yemeni refugees living in South Korea. I began research for this project in the Fall of 2020. The project is a part of a requirement for my MFA program at the Stamps School of Art + Design. As a documentary filmmaker my studio practice and research are necessarily in the field working closely with people and their communities. My practice can take me to familiar spaces or completely unfamiliar ones. Being Muslim and being an immigrant, I feel comfortable with different cultures and have been lucky enough to have experienced many different ones both at home in metro Detroit and around the world. Working in South Korea on my research and film project built upon my previous work on global human rights issues in places like Greece, Germany, and refugee issues in metro Detroit.
People were forced to leave Yemen in the subsequent years after the Arab spring, which eventually led to the ongoing Yemeni civil war but was made even worse by famine and a deadly cholera outbreak which began in 2016 and continues today. Thus many Yemenis fled their countries for destinations as far away as South Korea. The small east Asian country was not a major destination for refugees who left their homes as part of the turmoil in the contemporary Middle East, as most headed for Europe. This all changed when in the summer of 2018, a flood of about 500 Yemeni refugees arrived Jeju, an island off the southern coast of South Korea. Due to a visa loophole on Jeju Island, the refugees were allowed to enter Jeju without a visa after being denied permanent asylum in Malaysia. While the number of refugees entering South Korea was low, it presents a fascinating case study and exemplifies how far reaching the effects of the global migrant crisis are. It spans from places like metro Detroit and Europe where I’ve experienced it first hand, all the way to South Korea.
I had a very short timeframe to conduct my research and obtain all the footage I would need, since I was required to leave Korea within ninety days. What made things even more demanding was the requirement to quarantine on multiple occasions and following the strict Covid safety guidelines. However, I was able to be productive while living in Korea and working on the project. I was based in Seoul, but traveled to the various places where I knew Yemeni refugees were living, including Busan, Gimhae, Ulsan, Hwaseong, Mokpo, and most importantly, Jeju Island, which I visited about six times. I met with about a dozen Yemeni refugees and around five or six Korean and non-Korean activists, human rights lawyers, and faith leaders. I filmed environmental footage and b-roll, including aspects of their lives, their work and home lives as well as eight formal sit down interviews with refugees and activists.
The highlight of the trip was meeting one particular refugee, Omar Alwahaishy. Omar’s father, Mohamad Alwahaishy, lives in Dearborn, Michigan and is an American citizen and is trying to bring Omar to the U.S. After returning to Detroit in late August, I met with Mohamad at a cafe in Dearborn. Meeting Omar and his dad have given the project more focus. Due to this discovery, this global story has taken on a local component. The Alwahaishi family includes seven children who are displaced over three different countries. Omar, who has another brother with him in South Korea, also has two siblings in Saudi Arabia, and three of them and his parents in Dearborn. His own wife and two small children still live in Yemen and are not allowed to join him in Korea. Omar’s life in Korea and his attempts to reunite with his family in Dearborn are now the focus of my film. I recently began editing the footage in collaboration with Korean-American editor Zoe Sua Cho, and shared twelve minutes of the film for my MFA critique recently.
Since I had such little time with Omar, as I met him towards the end of my stay, I’ll be returning to Korea over Winter 2021/22. Zoe will also be traveling to Korea and will meet with Omar and film with him. In the meantime, I will also film with Mohamad locally. My plan is to continue working on the film through the winter semester and complete a thirty-minute film as my thesis project. However, I will also continue to work further on the film after I graduate from my MFA program in the Spring of 2022.
Wondering how this can be you? All students currently enrolled at the University of Michigan in an undergraduate or graduate/professional degree program (master's or doctoral level) and are affiliated with the GISC are eligible to apply for the 2022 Summer Fellowship Funding.
The GISC 2022 Summer Fellowship Funding may be used for the following:
Language training - to offset costs of program fees for language learning.
Research support - to offset costs for an original project supporting Senior, Master’s, or Doctoral thesis completion.
Travel expenses (graduate students only) - associated with conducting original research or language training