A Syrian refugee, who made a hazardous journey to Europe, is one of the faces of this year’s Festival of Tolerance in Croatia. Indeed, Odaj Ajam’s handsome young face, enlarged to a screen size of 20m x 8m, is being projected onto the walls of Dubovac Castle.
“I didn’t expect this (stardom); it’s amazing,” says Odaj, 29, originally from Idlib, Syria. “But it’s not just about my face. It’s about refugees in general and how people see us. In my experience in Croatia, lots of people don’t know anything about refugees, the journey we made or the countries we come from.”
Odaj is one of four former and present-day refugees – one from the Second World War, one from Croatia’s war of independence (1991-1995) and two from Syria — featured in a short film called “Us”.
Award-winning director Jure Pavlović, 36, says he wanted to “connect past refugee experience to present. Unfortunately, in Croatia and the Balkans, we have had a lot of experience of war.”
“I didn’t expect this (stardom); it’s amazing.”
“Us” is just one of 51 short and full-length films being screened as the Festival of Tolerance, in its 15th year, bounces back after Covid-19 restrictions. The locations are fabulous. Over 10 days, from 1-10 July, three films a day are showing on two screens at Lake Bundek in Zagreb.
“With the open-air location, we can provide social distancing and enough space between the seats,” says Hrvoje Pukšec, Film Program Manager for the FoT, which is a partner to UNHCR. “We have a full festival in terms of films and are expecting a regular audience, in the thousands.”
In memory of the festival’s founder, Hollywood producer and Auschwitz survivor Branko Lustig, who died in 2019, this year’s festival begins and ends with films about the Holocaust and Srebrenica genocide. But other movies are on lighter themes, including football, and a number of films are about refugees.
The other location, where “Us” had its premier on World Refugee Day on 20 June, and is on a loop throughout the festival, is Dubovac Castle in the city of Karlovac, which in recent times became a key point on the refugee trail.
Noting that the number of refugees worldwide had reached a record-breaking 82.4 million, Anna Rich, UNHCR’s Representative in Croatia, said: “It’s not just a statistic. It’s the number of children, women and men. Every number has a human face. On World Refugee Day, we celebrate their strength and courage.”
The 16th century Dubovac fortress stands at Croatia’s narrowest point, from where you can look out to neighbouring Bosnia and Hezegovina and Slovenia. At a cross roads, it has historically seen people both fleeing and arriving in search of protection. Today, the city of Karlovac is home to a community of Syrian refugees resettled from Turkey.
Without registering it, Odaj and Hanna, the other Syrian refugee featured in “Us”, may have passed the castle as they made their way on foot through the Balkans in 2015. “I have many memories,” says Odaj. “Sometimes they are of an interesting, really dangerous adventure. Sometimes I prefer to forget.”
“I have many memories. Sometimes they are of an interesting, really dangerous adventure. Sometimes I prefer to forget.”
Echoes of their traumatic experience are what unite the four former refugees in “Us”, even though they have recovered in the years since. Jure, the director, sat each refugee down and filmed the emotion on their faces as they watched news footage of the particular war zones they were in.
Jakša, born in 1926, turns his face away from images of tents at El Shatt camp in the Sinai desert to which, as a wounded 19-year-old, he was evacuated by the Allies when the Nazis were entering his native Dalmatia. Jakša went on to have a career in construction and serve as the Mayor of Split.
Igor, now an actor, looks at photos of children at school in Germany who, like him, were evacuated from Vukovar during fighting in 1991. Hanna watches images of rubber boats on the sea between Turkey and Greece and roads leading up through the Balkans.
Odaj contemplates pictures of washing lines at Porin reception centre for asylum seekers in Zagreb, where he was staying for several months after being returned to Croatia from Austria under the Dublin Regulation. He seems calm. “He has a natural ability just to be himself,” says the director.
But under the surface, Odaj is reliving both the stress of endless waiting and the sudden demands of the journey he made alone, leaving his family in the Middle East. “Facing the fear,” he says, “not having a choice, then sometimes having to make a split-second decision, to go, yes or no?”
Now Odaj says he is “80 per cent OK”. He rents a flat in Zagreb and works in a sushi restaurant. Does he enjoy it? “Yes, I enjoy it; I need to enjoy it, otherwise it would be hell,” he says. The truth is he lost a lot in leaving Syria.
Back home, he was close to getting a university degree in archeology. “I went to all the sites,” he said, noting some were damaged in the war. “The entrance to Aleppo Citadel was damaged.”
In Croatia, he would have to start archeology studies all over again, an unlikely prospect. Instead, he is doing a course in web design and is hopeful of the future.
From Zagreb, he watches online as his film plays at Dubovac Castle. How fitting that the face of an archeologist should light up those ancient stones. And who knows? Perhaps the experience Odaj has had in making the video will help him as he goes forward into a different career.
This post was originally published on UNHCR Croatia.