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Opinion 'You've never fled from your country - you've gone away, but you weren't forced'

Filmmaker Dennis Harvey writes about what drove him to make a documentary about migration – both his own, and friends from abroad.

SINCE 2014, I have filmed my friends Hashem, Alicia and Alireza as they have rebuilt their lives abroad after leaving the homes they were given.

Hashem was a politician in Bangladesh, but fled to Spain after a change in government and threats on his life. Alicia left Peru for Chile, and then Chile for Spain, after falling into debt selling goods on the streets. Alireza fled Afghanistan as an infant, and Iran as a teenager, and made his way to Sweden, where he hoped to receive asylum.

I’ve also documented my own migration story: I left Dublin in the years after the financial crash and worked in Spain and Chile before moving to Stockholm, where I’ve lived since 2017.

In I Must Away, my debut feature which screens at Dublin International Film Festival on 3 March, Hashem, Alicia and Alireza’s migration stories are interspliced with my own, and are narrated by a series of letters from me to my late grandmother, Mary Rowan, who spent most of her life in Islands, Williamstown, Co Galway, just six miles from where she was born.

My privileged experience of migration is in stark contrast to that of Hashem, Alicia and Alireza; I’ve always had options, they’ve had none but to leave.

Alireza reminds me of this towards the end of the film: “You know when you flee… No, you don’t know, because you’ve never fled from your country, from your family. You’ve gone away but you weren’t forced.”

Making connections

DennisHarvey_director_profile Dennis Harvey

It was a long and challenging process to make connections across our disparate experiences, but placing our stories on the same screen felt like the best way to explore the unequal distribution of rights and privileges in our current politics of movement.

And even though my Irish passport makes me one of the most privileged migrants on the planet, it has been interesting to reflect on the circumstances of my departure from Ireland while making I Must Away.

I was coming to the end of secondary school when the banks were bailed out, and would read about the thousands of unemployed graduates emigrating each month while I was trying to decide which university course to apply for.

I began my undergraduate education in the depths of the recession, and graduated just as the “recovery” began- an economic “recovery” which has kept over 10,000 people homeless for almost five years and made Ireland one of the least affordable places to rent in the world. I might have gone regardless, but all this certainly helped me on my way.

I’ve spent most of the past six years in Stockholm, where inequality has risen sharply in the neoliberal era, but where the remnants of social democracy—which effectively eradicated poverty in the 1970s—still provides young people with a viable, independent future in the city.

I find it sad that many of my closest friends from Dublin didn’t and don’t see a future for
themselves there. Christmas is a magical time each year, when those of us who are able to return get a brief glimpse of what life might have been like had government policy been different and all of us could have stayed.

Starting from scratch

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Starting from scratch in a new country is hard. You need to find a job to make a living; find a community to make life worth living. I’m lucky that I’ve managed to do both, and even still I can have moments when I long for family, friends and the comforting familiarity of home in Ireland.

Imagine having to do this while in hiding from the authorities, who have deemed you “illegal” for simply being in your new country; or as your children grow up without you because you’ve had to move to the other side of the world to live and work in safety.

Europe is where much of the world’s resources are hoarded and fiercely protected. Many of us who were born here expect, and enjoy, an exceptionally high standard of living, even during an era of Dennis Harvey political instability and climate breakdown. So long as the Global North holds on to the majority of the world’s wealth by force, people will need and want to make their way here to attempt to earn their share of this wealth.

Over the past few years, migrant and left-wing activists have made huge progress by forcing the government to finally make plans to abolish Direct Provision. But we are now in the midst of an anti-migrant surge led by the burgeoning far-right.

In one of the richest countries in the world, a country which places the success of its emigrants at the heart of its national self-image, we are presented with a choice: do we allow our new arrivals to be denied the opportunities that so many Irish people were granted abroad when Ireland couldn’t provide them at home?

Or do we fight for those who want to come here to rebuild their life and become part of the community?

I hope I Must Away can help us with this choice.

I Must Away will be shown at the Dublin International Film Festival on 3 March

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