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A teenage refugee on Ai Weiwei’s new film Human Flow

Maya Ghazal is a young woman from Syria who has become an advocate for refugees after her father made a dangerous journey to bring his family to safety

For 18-year-old Maya Ghazal, the issues in Ai Wei Wei’s film Human Flow are particularly personal. Her father made the journey from Syria to the UK alone, and Ghazal and her mother followed him on a plane when she was 15.

Wei Wei’s expansive documentary about refugees in 23 countries is visually stunning. It shows that just because the refugee crisis no longer takes up as many column inches as it did in 2015, thousands of people are continuing to fight for their lives, cut adrift from their home countries.

Here, Ghazal – who has now become an award-winning advocate for refugees – explains to Dazed why Ai Wei Wei’s film makes us realise the scale of the refugee crisis, how it helped her explore her own roots and reminded her of her own family’s journey.

THE MASSIVE SCALE OF THE REFUGEE CRISIS 

“Human Flow made me really open to the great issues around the world. I know now that the crisis is great. It’s affecting people at different economic levels and with different backgrounds but it’s leading to the same same thing: people are displaced and having to leave their countries. They just want to live normally and then they get disrupted, and it isn't their fault. It showed me clearly the dangers that refugees face. Everything was filmed, day and at night. The variety of the places and times that it was filmed at just made me realise that this happening now. Every second, even while we’re talking. It won’t stop until people from everywhere gather up to stop it.”

“The variety of the places and times that it was filmed at just made me realise that this happening now. Every second, even while we’re talking” – Maya Ghazal

WHY FAMILY REUNION CAMPAIGN WORK IS VITAL

“Recently I've been campaigning around family visa reunions with the UNHCR. My dad was already here and he applied for my family to come and join him, but the visa is very limited at present. I’m the oldest daughter and I was 15 when I came. It wasn’t a very easy procedure. If someone is above the age of 18 you can’t get a family via reunion for that person and it doesn’t extend to include siblings or grandparents. It’s also very hard to bring your parents if you are a child refugee. And it costs a lot of money for many people to get the papers. It made me realise that if I was 18 when my dad did the family visa reunion I wouldn’t be able to come to the UK safely, by plane. It made me wonder whether I would just have just left my family, and take the same dangerous journey as my dad did? I know that many other people are taking the dangerous route because they are above 18 and they have family abroad.”

HER FATHER'S TREACHEROUS JOURNEY ALONE FROM SYRIA

“My dad never talks about his journey. When I went to see Human Flow all I was thinking about was my dad. You know that curiosity you get? I wonder if he’s fine now, how did he feel then? Did he have to go through violence from the police and the authorities? It was very heartbreaking to see the film and see what real people, people from my country, are facing – sleeping on the streets. And other people from Africa, from Mexico. People in Calais, in Greece. It’s a very wide issue that will only get wider if we don’t speak up against it. My mum and two brothers moved with me to London but my dad is still in Birmingham. He's self-employed and because it was the first city he came to in the UK he just couldn't let it go.”

“My dad never talks about his journey. When I went to see Human Flow all I was thinking about was my dad” – Maya Ghazal

HOW SHE WILL CONTINUE TO USE HER VOICE

“I speak up to feel good about myself. I struggled in the beginning when I moved to the UK with school and education and everything. But then I received help and my life has changed a lot. I didn’t go through that dangerous journey that many other refugees, younger than me, have taken. So the film cemented to me how advantaged I am and why I want to speak up. Young refugees have voices but they can’t be heard. There must be someone who can tell other people how we feel, or how they can help. It makes me feel good every time I go and deliver a speech. I know it might not change things instantly but I’m hoping that in the long term it has a tiny effect.”

ADJUSTING TO LIFE IN THE UK 

“I live in London where I study at university. Before we were in Birmingham and I've travelled around a lot. Wherever I go, I have to try their fish and chips. So far, Stratford was the best and then Cardiff. I like London because it's very diverse and big. It makes me feel a bit of Damascus-ish. Because Damascus was the capital and that's where I lived, and it had many activities, many shopping centres and lots of stuff to do with my friends. My mum runs a Facebook group for Syrians in the UK. She has about 4,000 members in there so I do have Syrian friends.

“I carry on learning French, sometimes Russian. My favourite English word is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” – Maya Ghazal

When I'm not at uni I do rowing club. It's a good physical sport, as I'm considering going to the RAF. I also play the guitar when I have free time. I like old music, Beethoven and classical stuff. I don't like ‘beats’ with many chords, or up and down up and down. I'm too slow for that. I like listening to classical, sometimes blues, and I like 80s music. And also of course, we all listen to music on Capital radio. I carry on learning French, sometimes Russian. My favourite English word is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!”

Human Flow is out in cinemas now