Oxfam’s Jackie Nelson reflects on her work managing the I Hear You video project with creator, Julie Anne Robinson, and 14 artists lending their voices.
About a year ago, Oxfam became concerned not only about the well-being and rights of refugees which we had been working on for decades, but also the increasingly hateful rhetoric towards refugees. People who were fleeing the very violence that most frightens us had become the target of our fears and malicious words. Oxfam took a clear position on the issue, releasing statements denouncing poisonous and misleading rhetoric and myths. But, we also searched for creative ways to do more.
Meanwhile, acclaimed TV and film producer and director Julie Anne Robinson shared our frustrations. She had encountered several incidents making evident that people’s perception of refugees was getting worse. And to her surprise and concern, she realized even she was beginning to grow numb to the news of Syria. So Julie Anne decided to use the power of her artistry to help people understand who refugees really are. She suspected that, perhaps, if viewers heard the stories of people’s lives beyond the conflict, they might empathize.
Would the public think differently if it could get a glimpse into day-to-day human moments in refugees’ lives—vacations, birthday parties, soccer matches, pranks, love-at-first-sightings, and backyard BBQs—and the tireless desire to keep one’s family safe and simply “go home?” And, could these stories spread far and wide through the lens of a familiar face—that of a celebrity?
So, when Julie Anne and I met, we quickly begin to explore how storytelling from a different point of view could affect change. We designed a project where actors who care about the refugee crisis might speak on behalf of those silenced by conflict. By using the words of those fleeing conflict, actors could reveal how similar the human experience can be in the absence of crisis.
“When I was thinking about this project, my instinct was that we all have the same hopes, dreams, ambitions for our families, and desires. I was hoping that culturally that this would communicate across the continents, and I am so relieved to find that it is true,” said Julie Anne.
Conde Nast and Vanity Fair, also eager to elevate the conversation, agreed to partner with us. We quickly agreed to strive for less drama and “no violins,” as Julie Anne put it. Rather, we would tell simple, honest, relatable stories in people’s own words. And “just by viewing the videos, people can be part of making a difference,” by changing the dialogue, according to Julie Anne. We designed other ways for viewers to play a role in helping refugees to—donating to support Oxfam’s work with these vulnerable populations and taking action to change important policies that affect refugees.
Julie Anne and I traveled together to Lebanon and Tanzania, where people tried to fight the injustice of their displacement and endure suffering in refugee camps and informal settlements. We recorded stories of people from Syria, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There was much laughing, surprisingly, when people shared their favorite memories from their peaceful pasts. There was also shared wonder and grief at the absurdity of it all—that where one is born can affect one’s life so much. With great care, families hosted us in their tents and shelters, offering us homemade cherry jam, tea, watermelon, and much kindness, though their lives were a far cry from what they had been when they had lived in spacious homes with beautiful gardens before the conflict.
Julie Anne told me she was surprised by the tremendous positivity and spirit of people who had fled conflict, which she had not expected to find. “In nine cases out of 10 people were unbroken and unbowed,” she said.
The entertainment community, including actors, was eager to help. Countless publicists, agents, managers, writers, crew, assistants, make-up and hair artists, donated time and talent. It was common for the actors to cry during the first take of their shoot, overwhelmed by the gravity of the words they were responsible for.
Margot Robbie imagined that in another life she would likely be friends with the young woman—a law student whose story she tells.
Ari Graynor felt grateful that she could be a part of revealing that “behind all of the stories on the news, that we can become numb to, there are individual stories of people’s full lives.” In the person she spoke on behalf of, Ari admired “how she chose to look at her life and how beautifully accomplished, strong, and loving she is. Even though, she is far away, I can feel that life force from her, and it is so strong.”
Oliver Platt appreciated the importance of being a part of “documenting an oral history, especially given the state of the world right now. It is a very effective way to humanize people. Now more than ever, it is important to support projects like this.”
Minnie Driver expressed the sentiment of many artists who were involved. “I don’t believe we can become so anesthetized to so many people’s suffering in the world, when there is stuff we can do,” she said. “We can share. We can be available to people to help. It feels like we’ve forgotten that.”
In the end, more than 200 people from within the entertainment industry, Conde Nast, Vanity Fair, and Oxfam have given people fleeing harm a voice.
“The number of people who have touched the project has surprised me,” Julie Anne said. “There is an incredible awareness that is happening in the industry and a real commitment to further the work with Oxfam and in support of refugees. It is tremendous.”
Our shared hope for refugees? To begin with, that you might hear them.
“I always wanted to do something that would have an impact. Of course, you’re just one person and you think, ‘there is nothing I can do.’ You get overwhelmed by a sense of frustration and the feeling that you can’t make any difference,” Julie Anne said, “And yet I’m hoping that this might make a difference. Even if it doesn’t, I’ve tried. I’ve given it a go.”
Will you join us in sharing the voices of refugees? Watch the videos and share them far and wide.