"I want to show the unique challenges that refugees experience when trying to rebuild their lives in a new country"
The Los Angeles-based Fulbright Schuman Alumna Jhizet Panosian about her work as documentary filmmaker/writer and her goal to humanize the people behind the words “refugee” & “migrant” while raising awareness on the many barriers countries have in place against refugees.
Who is Jhizet Panosian?
Jhizet Panosian is the recipient of the 2021-2022 Schuman Fulbright Fellowship. She is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara and has a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies.
Why did you choose filmmaking as your research subject?
Films and storytelling have always been my biggest passion. It’s an art form that speaks a universal language, and I think a moving image can evoke basic human emotions no matter where we are in the world.
Tell us about the feature documentary you're working on.
Another Place is the story of 3 refugees who traveled to Europe during the European migration crisis and started over. In the aftermath, it delves into the process of rebuilding and acclimating to a new country and the difficulties of that process. My protagonists are Louines, a Congolese man who now lives in Belgium. Hamed, a Syrian man who lives in Denmark, and Zahra, an Afghan woman who lives in Germany with her family.
Why did you choose the topic migration?
The topic of migration is very personal for me because it’s the story of my own family. My family fled Iran during the Iran/Iraq war when I was very young, and we resettled in the United States. In a way, this project was an excavation of my own refugee experience and I was able to finally make sense of it as an adult.
In what way can your documentary contribute to give refugees and migrants a voice in the public debate, and how can it serve as an instrument of empowerment?
Refugees and migrants already have a voice in the public debate but are portrayed as lacking any agency over their own lives. This film is an opportunity to show the raw and unfiltered experience of arriving in Europe and attempting to rebuild your life as a refugee. I hope it allows my subjects to find a wider community of support around them and in the world, to humanize the people behind the word “refugee” or “migrant,” and to show a wider audience the many barriers countries have in place against refugees.
What message do you want to send to the world with this documentary?
In the past, the stories portrayed in the media about refugees and migrants have mainly focused on dangerous border crossings and forced displacement. But what happens to these individuals once they arrive? Where do they live? How do they work and integrate into these new versions of home? With this film, I want to show the unique challenges that refugees experience when trying to rebuild their lives in a new country.
In the public debate, the challenges of migration are often more in the focus than the advantages, although receiving societies benefit in many ways. Could you name a few examples of the positive effects of migration for the receiving societies?
A better question would be, why is a certain kind of migration seen as more positive than others? During this year of filming, I witnessed the differences in the discourse around receiving white refugees from Ukraine versus Black and Brown refugees. While no one contested why the EU should open its borders to Ukrainians without needing a debate on why that would be beneficial, but simply based on solidarity. I would like us to consider why the same solidarity efforts did not include Brown and Black refugees and migrants.
The EU is doing a great effort in integrating migrants in communities, in your opinion, what is still missing/what steps could be done to maximize these efforts?
The thing that struck me most while filming was the procedures. The main struggle for refugees in EU countries is accessing basic services and entering the labor market. The way to level the playing field would be to make it easier for refugees to access the same rights as citizens and participate in the host countries, which is currently not happening. Most are caught up for years to access the correct paperwork.
Migrants and refugees want to be active members of society and contribute to their host countries because it is also where they build communities. Unfortunately, all the red tape makes this process extremely difficult and is a detriment to everyone involved.
Let's talk about your Fulbright Schuman scholarship. Tell us about your experience there.
I loved my Fulbright experience. Being in Belgium as my host country was essential to my project and the film's story. I still pinch myself that I get to be part of such an incredible roster of people and have made lifelong friends. I look forward to connecting with more alumni over the years.
How did you benefit from the Fulbright Schuman Program and from your stay in Europe?
Being based in Europe was the only way I could have worked on this film. Being centrally located to all my protagonists and being able to make last-minute schedule changes was instrumental in completing each story arc. Flights and other production needs were also more cost-effective than they would have been had I been based in the US.
Tell us a quote that you try to live by:
"Come let us be friends for once, let us make life easy on us, let us be lovers and loved ones, the earth shall be left to no one." - Sufi Poem
The Fulbright Schuman Program which was created in 1990 and is jointly financed by the U.S. State Department and the Directorate-General for Education and Culture of the European Commission provides grants for Americans and Europeans to study and conduct research. The program funds graduate and postgraduate study, research, and lecture proposals in the field of US-EU relations, EU policy, or EU institutions for interested American and EU citizens. For more info, check here and here.