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Home » Discover Rackham » The Yemeni Refugee Crisis Through a Documentary Lens

We enter filmmaker Razi Jafri’s documentary, Sanctuary Purgatory (working title), by water. Blue ocean churns gently against the black, craggy shore of Jeju Island, South Korea. Further inland, we see the verdant green of abundance, but our first encounter: the rocks. A quote from the first Young Poet Laureate of London, Warsan Shire, fades onto the screen:

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

The film’s protagonist is Omar Alwahaishy, a refugee seeking sanctuary for his family from the civil war and humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen. Alwahaishy is collaborating with Jafri, a Rackham and Stamps School of Art & Design alumnus (M.F.A. ’22), on a documentary to raise awareness about the everyday struggles of refugees around the world through his story.

“The outside world, they think that Yemenis are terrorists, that we are bad people,” Alwahaishy offers in a clip of the documentary-in-progress. “But when you come to know the people, they are normal people who just want to live their life, just like everybody else.”

Razi Jafri's film featuring Omar Alwahaishy is projected onto a wall. A class filled with graduate students and faculty views it.

Early edits of Razi Jafri’s documentary were screened as part of M.F.A. program critiques at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design during Jafri’s time in the program.

Surfacing the Story

Jafri met Alwahaishy in 2021, when he traveled to Seoul, South Korea, as part of the Stamps School’s international research requirement. Due to the pandemic, many graduate students chose to postpone their travel, or conduct research domestically, but Jafri was interested in exploring ways to push his creative practice and felt international travel was critical to that effort.

“I needed to find a country that overlapped with my interests in human rights and the Muslim diaspora–and a country that I was allowed to travel to, given pandemic restrictions,” Jafri says.

Initially, Jafri envisioned his travel leading to a series of mini-documentary profiles on Yemeni refugees living in South Korea. However, when he was introduced to Alwahaishy through a friend, he knew that a pivot was in order, even if it meant that his M.F.A. thesis work would be a small sample of a project that would likely take years to unfold.

“When I was introduced to Omar, it was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is the story,’” Jafri says. “He was very well-spoken and well-read. He was very interesting and funny and weird in all the right ways.”

Alwahaishy was also enduring a tension all too common to the refugee experience: backlash. In 2018, after an influx of Yemeni refugees joined their community, over 700,000 South Korean citizens signed a petition to push the government to tighten restrictions on refugee resettlement in their country. It was one of the largest petition responses in the nation’s history.

“The reason for this is negative stereotypes about refugees,” Jafri says. “Anti-refugeeism today is conflated with Islamophobia. They’re sort of like two threads of the same kind of hatred.”

Finding Home Together

Omar Alwahaishy and Razi Jafri working on his U.S. Visa paperwork in Seoul cafe.

Razi Jafri (left) and Omar Alwahaishy (right) working on his U.S. Visa paperwork in Seoul cafe. Alwahaishy hopes to one day settle with his wife and two children in Dearborn, Michigan, where his parents currently live.

In addition to helping Alwahaishy tell his story to the world, Jafri is also helping to shape it. He consulted immigration specialists on Alwahaishy’s behalf and assisted with research in hopes of finding a path for Alwahaishy to reunite with his wife and children, portrayed through artful animations in the film to protect their privacy. The urgency behind reunification is paramount, as Alwahaishy fled Yemen when his wife was pregnant thinking he could chart a swift course to safety for the family. The journey out of Yemen can be particularly arduous, especially for pregnant women and children. Five years later, Alwahaishy has yet to hold his daughter, and his son is now ten years old.

“The vast majority of Yemenis that I met in South Korea were men who had to flee because they did not believe in the war. They were afraid of being conscripted,” Jafri says.

Yemen is nearly nine years into a civil proxy war backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran, exploiting centuries-old discord between followers of two Islamic traditions, Sunni and Shia, for control over the region and its resources. Since the crisis began eight years ago, the U.S. government has provided nearly $4.5 billion to alleviate the suffering of the people of Yemen; it has also allowed the sale of American-made military weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. The country has also been plagued in recent years by a historic drought, water scarcity, and the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cumulatively, it is one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, with around 23.4 million people in need of assistance, including almost 13 million children.

“The documentary gets down to the ground-level of how families and individuals are impacted by the war in Yemen–and how they have to turn their lives upside down in order to live peacefully and find sanctuary,” Jafri says.

Dreaming the Future

In addition to aspirations of a State Department or congressional screening, Jafri believes that, once finished, Sanctuary Purgatory can act as a mobilizing element for grassroots activism. One simple yet powerful result that Jafri is hoping his film will inspire: self reflection on the part of his audiences.

“I want to disrupt the idea that refugees are these poor, broken, downtrodden people that have no agency or resources,” Jafri says. “It’s their agency, their grit, their courage that enables them to flee their countries, to arrive someplace else in a foreign land, learn that country’s culture, learn that country’s language, and contribute positively to that country’s society and to that country’s economy, like Omar is.”

In January 2023, Alwahaishy received news that his family’s visa was approved to relocate to Indonesia, allowing Alwahaishy to be closer to his family for visits and allowing his children to go to school again. His wife and children relocated to Jakarta in March, with Jafri present to film the reunion at the Jakarta airport, and are now celebrating Ramadan together as a family.

Serendipitously, Alwahaishy’s parents live in Dearborn, Michigan, providing an incredible connection to Jafri’s home state. “To stumble upon this incredible Michigan connection was just unreal,” Jafri says.

The story’s link to Dearborn also allowed Jafri to continue to build authentic relationships with Alwahaishy and his family, paving the way for the story’s continuation after Jafri left South Korea and highlighting a local connection to the global refugee crisis.

“Omar’s dad asks Omar about me. He’s like, ‘Is Razi okay?’ Our relationship is really about how we’re supporting each other and the trust we’ve built up,” Jafri says.

Jafri asserts that the primary goal of the project is for Alwahaishy to reunite with his wife and two children, eventually immigrating to the United States to be surrounded by family in Dearborn.

“The ultimate goal is for [Alwahaishy] to end up here in the U.S. I want to be in community together with him,” Jafri says. “That’s the ultimate vision.”

How Rackham Helps

Jafri is the recipient of a Rackham Graduate Student Research Grant and a Rackham International Research Award, both in support of Sanctuary Purgatory. The project has also received funding from the Stamps School of Art & Design, the Global Islamic Studies Center, and the Nam Center for Korean Studies.

Jafri is grateful to the University of Michigan for the support of this project and for the connections to other talented creatives that were made while he was at Stamps, specifically Karson Schenk, a recent Stamps alum who is serving as a producer and animator on the film.

“I met Karson when I was her graduate student instructor. And that’s turned into a long-term creative relationship, the two of us having recently co-founded Mulberry Productions, a new production company with a third partner Hamoody Jaafar,” Razi says.

“I’m also grateful for the professional relationships that came out of U-M and specifically came out of Stamps.”