Hassan Akkad: exodus from Syria

Hassan Akkad arrived in Europe in 2015 after a long, arduous journey – one of the many fleeing conflict. He recorded his travels throughout in a brave, ground-breaking way: on a GoPro camera.

Hassan Akkad
2 March 2017

This is an edited version of a talk delivered by Hassan Akkad as part of Power Of Film And Moving Image, an annual cultural event and digital platform to expose and explore the ever-growing power of film and moving image to define and influence the modern world. 

I have absolutely no experience in filming. I’m originally a teacher back home, and I was a photographer. I taught English and social studies and I have a Canon 5D. I used to take a lot of pictures and I loved it. Life was amazing in Syria. It was normal, quiet, peaceful, until it wasn’t so any more.

It started as a revolution and then it turned into a war. I don’t want to go into the history of what happened in Syria because it really upsets me. But it turned really ugly and eventually, we had to flee. We had to leave the country. In 2015, actually 1 million people arrived in Europe. I think 400,000 of them were Syrians including myself. And when I finally made that choice of going to Europe – I’ve never really liked Europe before, no offence…but you’re not Europe any more! – but the thing about it, is that Syrians, we really never wanted to leave. It was great, but then I had that conversation with my friends and my cousin, and I was like, “let’s just do it. Let’s just go.”

My personal reason for fleeing is because, while I was protesting back home in Syria, I was thrown in prison twice for peacefully protesting the Assad regime, and it was really grim because I got thrown in solitary confinement for a while and got beaten up. So for me, it was not home any more, I had to leave. That was my reason. I was terrified of my own police force. I could not see peace any more, so I wanted to just go somewhere else and restart my life. So I did it. And then before I did it, I was always online checking the news because a lot of people would post about their journeys on Facebook being like “this is what we’ve done”; “this is the route we took”; “this is what we have to do”; “this is how much we paid”; and then I would also read the news and it was quite absurd – the amount of hatred that was online towards us, because people will be like, “oh, they’re coming.  Swarms of people coming”, as if we were like cockroaches or something, and as an Islamic invasion, “they’re coming for a Sharia-lah!”

The people I know, that was really hard for us to process because obviously, we’re like: they’re writing bad about us so basically, they don’t know what we’re going through. I was like, “I need to tell them. I need to tell them how hard it is to do this journey. And I need to show the world how difficult it is to do it.” So I did it. I got myself a GoPro. I did the cheesy thing of bringing a GoPro here, but it’s really dear to my heart. And I got a GoPro because I was like, it will be a lot easier for me to film on a GoPro. I got five memory sticks and a power-bank, and off we go. I started the journey.

It was really difficult, quite difficult. I went on a boat, on a rubber boat, on a dinghy, you’ve seen them on the news but the promise by the people smuggler was to put 45 people on it, and then son of a cow, he put 63 of us on it, and I knew for a fact that it’s not going to go well. We’re going to sink...we’re going to die.  Because that’s the news you see.  I mean, it happened to others, it could easily happen to us.

So after 20 or 30 minutes of sailing, water started seeping in and there were 13 children and 10 women, and the boat started going down and the engine died, and I...I wanted to hit pause – I wanted to really press pause, but I was like, “No, I need to continue because I need to document this. I need to show the world what this is. For people, for us, to go through...”  The boat actually did sink. But what I did is that I grabbed the camera from my pocket and I gave it to my friend, and we were like in water and I was like, “Just carry on filming” and he was like “You are fucking crazy! What are you doing Hassan? I mean, seriously, what are you doing? Let’s just...”

Then I stopped filming. I stopped filming because I had to pick up children. I stopped filming because I had a...the worst part was that actually on that boat, I packed like 28 years of my life in a bag, and then I lost that bag. It’s really hurtful to...I put my favourites, running shoes and my favourite watch and T-shirts and everything that I had from home, but then that bag drifted away. Watching it drift away was quite hard but I filmed it! How great was that?

We were picked up. Luckily, no one died but a pregnant woman had a miscarriage on the boat and also witnessing that itself was quite hard. When we were picked up by the Turkish coastguards, you know when you take a really good picture?  Or you filmed something really cool you want to…not cool. I’m not using my words properly, but when you filmed something worth keeping, you have to – now that I work in filming, I know about data wrangling, so I had to data wrangle my data. And what I did, I’m sorry this is too much info, but I need to tell you how difficult it was for me because if we get picked off by the Turkish coastguards, they search us head to toes. So I actually took off the memory stick and I hid it in my bum and it was the only reason – it was the only place to hide it and I had really good footage on it. By the way, the clip I’m talking about – I mean, I wiped it after! – the clip I’m talking about got shortlisted two weeks ago for the best moment on telly for the broadcast awards here in England.

I did not win. I only got shortlisted because the stupid snakes and iguanas from Planet Earth, they won. I mean, yeah I would have voted for them as well. They’re really, really nice. But I think I’m going to show you that clip now and then I’m going to carry on talking. So here’s the clip I’m talking about.

Thank you. Never gets easier watching this clip because I think my life flashed when that happened. We were too close to death, but we made it and that’s what matters. And then after we arrived into Lesbos, after we landed, the next day, obviously because we didn’t make it on this crossing, I had to make the choice. I was like, this is just the start. I have to go through 12 countries to get to England, 11 countries. And my crossing from Turkey to Greece, I got this footage. God knows what’s going to happen next. So I was quite determined on carrying on to film – to document the rest of the journey, and there were some really difficult bits. There were some really nice bits because it took me 87 days from Turkey to England, but they weren’t all difficult days. I mean, we were playing cards somewhere in a village in Macedonia. It took us three hours to make an omelette on firewood in Serbia and I – going back to thinking, back home, I was quite posh. I would never walk barefoot, and I like, never went camping, and I’m like, everything has to be perfect, and then I’m going through this which is life-changing for me. This is like booking a one-way ticket from home. I’m never going to go back now. 

So I carry on filming and the second hardest bit was when we got to Serbia, and the first difficult bit of the journey that happened in 2015 is crossing the water, but the second is crossing Hungary, because Hungary is not really good on the human rights issues. Seriously – I mean, arresting refugees and migrants and imprisoning them – so we had to get another people smuggler and I phoned my friend. I’m like “listen,” this is all filmed, and I’m like, “listen, dude, I need – I need a people smuggler”, he was like, “sure, I got you.” So he got me a phone number of someone called Marco and Marco, bless him, he’s like – he looks like a fridge, he’s like a really built-up Serbian mafia dude, and he picked us up, €1200 each, nine of us, in a van, a nine-hour drive to Vienna. But the thing is, I filmed those guys while they had AK-47s on them, like guiding us through the woods and loading us on vans and it was quite risky because had he seen the camera, I would have been shot on the spot; I mean you’re messing with the Serbian mafia here.  They’re quite intense, these guys, but amazingly, it worked.

I filmed them, and I got to Vienna and to Austria, and from there to Germany, to Belgium, and then I got to a really grim place. It’s in a country called France. They have a city – a village – a very shitty village called Calais. And in Calais, they have – they had, now they’ve got rid of it – they had a refugee camp called The Jungle. The existence of this place is a stain on Europe, because we stayed there for two months and honestly, it was the worst two months of my life. No water, no toilets, nothing we have. Everyday, in The Jungle, I used to walk for four hours filming, jumping over four fences, and then jumping on the Eurostar, and then getting caught and then being sent back or hiding in a lorry for twelve hours, and then also getting caught once the lorry – the smugglers put me in a lorry that went to Spain instead of England. It was emotionally and physically draining for me but I kept on filming and the sole reason of carrying on filming, to be honest, was because it made me feel a lot better. I was no longer the refugee fleeing war, and going to England, I was the filmmaker, and honestly, it gave me that scope – it gave me comfort, because I would be filming and I wouldn’t feel like I need to get somewhere safe or I need to hide properly. No, no, screw it, I’m just going to film. So it really helped me mentally, psychologically helped me stay stable, and having that urge to carry on to get to where I want to get. 

Now, how did this end up to the BBC, this footage? I don’t know if you’ve heard the podcast “This American Life”. Do you listen to it? The last week’s podcast was “No Coincidence, No Story”. It was pure coincidence. Honestly, it was – I was by the Eurostar station one day, and I wanted to jump over the fence and I was really craving a cigarette and then this group of English men and women offer me a cigarette. They’re like, “do you want to smoke?” I’m like, “sure, yeah.” I smoked. They’re like, “so who do you work for?” They thought I was a reporter or a filmmaker. I was like, “nah, I’m one of the jumpers.” And they were like, “oh, are you really?” And I was like “yes.  I promise you, I am.” And they were like, “we’re making this sick documentary. It’s a BBC2 documentary series, and it’s all about people filming their journeys.”  I was like “hehe, been there, done that.” 

So their project was – which was an amazing project – was going to the countries of origins of where refugees and migrants come from, and giving them smartphones so they can film their journeys. Basically exactly what I’ve done, but they handed like a hundred cell phones – a production company called KEO Films – they handed out hundreds of cell phones, smartphones to people, and they got some footage. Sometimes they would lose people. The series director James Bluemel, he went to everywhere in Africa, he went to Turkey, they went to Afghanistan, and that’s what they did. They handed people smartphones and they will have them film the places where they can’t go because – I mean, no filmmaker can go in a dingy or in a van with the people smugglers – and that’s what they got. They got really good footage of the Sahara crossing of someone called Alaygi coming from Gambia. They got really good footage of people crossing from Afghanistan and to Turkey, but they never got the boat crossing – I mean, but that’s what they needed the most, because if you watched the news last year, it was all about the boat crossing – until they found me, and they were like, “listen, we really want you to be on this project”, and I was like, “sure”, because honestly, for me, I didn’t want to make any money out of this. I made no money of out of this. I wanted to get the word out and there was no better platform than the BBC to get this word out, to show the people what it’s like, and it worked. I gave them my footage and then they film me for a bit, and then we made it.

Refugees arrive at Lesbos, 2016. Kay Nietfeld/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Refugees arrive at Lesbos, 2016. Kay Nietfeld/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.We’ve been winning – I’m saying ‘we’, because there’s a cheesier part of the story. So because it did really well, this project, and it’s been winning awards like crazy, the BBC commissioned KEO Films to do a follow-up and I’m working on it as an AP, check me out! It’s…it means a lot to me. I’m quite passionate about the topic, of course, having been through the journey and I know what the crisis means to a lot of people, and I know it’s not on the news any more. It’s not – it’s not the front cover any more, but it’s still happening folks. Last week, 1,500 people died in the Mediterranean trying to cross and it’s really important for me and for my colleagues from KEO Films to keep doing this, to keep documenting the story because what KEO Films and the BBC did in this project, which is called Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, they were very successful in humanising the story and putting a face on the crisis – and people identified with us. And people would message me after the project, and be like, “you could’ve been my neighbour or my brother or my friend and seeing you do this, I can really relate to you”.

I think I’ve been talking for a long time, and I’m really sorry, and thank you so much for listening to me.

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