We Are All Refugees
By Mat Tombers
Last week, in preparation for a meeting, Dalton Delan, who
is my client,
and Jon Alpert, who is probably one of the best cinema verite
producer/directors living, met me for dinner at Capsouto Freres
Manhattan to discuss our strategy for the pitch we were giving
Capsouto Freres is a dark, woodsy, clubby, romantic restaurant
the warehouse neighborhood that forms the border of the Financial
District from TriBeCa. It was the perfect place to have our
Jon was just back from Afghanistan, where he had been itching
since the day the finger got pointed at Bin Laden and the
Jon is like that; he has an affinity for trouble spots. He
the lines into Iraq in the days of the Gulf War, has faced
Central American troop of rebels in the no man's land between
Salvador and Nicaragua. He has done the things about which
made, all in getting a story. Moments after the first plane
first Tower, Jon was on-site, living as he did beneath the
zone, shooting and filing free lance reports for CBS.
But he wanted to go to Afghanistan himself, see it for himself.
Somewhere in the last months he met a young Afghan woman who
with her family in front of the Russians, making a tortuous
Kandahar to New York City. This is where she lives now, here
As the war got underway she joined a group of young Afghanis
money to help her native country. She spoke to crowds. She
and she decided she would return to Afghanistan to help distribute
aid - and to find out what had happened to the members of
they could not locate since the bombings had begun.
Jon went with her. He made a stunning documentary of her
which he is looking for a television network to air it. The
came from NHK in Japan, which has been a great supporter of
(Not only has he done some great work with his camera, he
part of his life to giving young people in lower Manhattan
opportunity to learn video as an art and as a way of making
His Downtown Community Television Center has provided dozens
people an opportunity to grow and learn and do.)
This young woman, whose name I cannot pronounce, gathered
returned to Afghanistan, all the way to Kandahar to dispense
aid and to
find her family, accompanied by a New York documentary maker,
of eleven Emmy Awards, my acquaintance, Jon.
To travel safety they had to buy a platoon of guards from
warlord. News team after news team has had the same experience.
in Afghanistan comes at a price, purchased from a local warlord.
In Kandahar, they found that members of her family had fled
countryside to escape the inevitable bombing that would come
They followed, deep into the countryside to find the missing
her family only to discover that nineteen of her cousins were
an attack on the village where they had sought refuge. A gunship
flown in and used its powerful guns on the village, after
had been told the place was a bastion of the Taliban.
Unfortunately, if there had been Taliban they had fled weeks
It is a powerful story. Look for it. From Ground Zero to
What is poignant about it is that it underscores and punctuates
have all known somewhere in our hearts - that the repercussions
falling Towers has reached all the way around the world to
had no part in plotting the action and, in this particular
themselves, refugees from the war. It underscored, too, that
Afghanistan is a victim, and is as isolated as almost any
Some people there have absolutely no understanding of what
They neither read nor write, nor have television or radio,
as some have done for hundreds of generations.
We talked of where and who would air the program and what
to do and say
when in meetings. As we worked, we drank some very nice California
white wine and ate wonderful food, which helped put the pounds
Jon that he had lost in the week in Afghanistan.
The restaurant was half full, as most restaurants downtown
and the room had the quiet sound of clattering dishes and
talk but it
was much quieter than it should have been, because it was
not as busy as
it should have been.
The Capsouto family knows Jon well because he is a regular
because Jon works people with his interviewer's skills and
opens them up
but he also becomes their friend. He is Jewish from New York
embraced by the Afghanis he met and who he filmed, though
I didn't ask
him, which I should have, if he had told them he was Jewish.
The family who owns this restaurant are themselves, they
hope, at the
end of their refugee journey, a family that started in Turkey,
Egypt and left Egypt for Israel and left Israel for America,
family moving around the world, staying together, looking
for a place
safe from war.
They find a certain irony; I am sure, in having been beneath
evacuation line, forced once more by an act of war to move.
All of them
seem to face life with a weary certainty. They have seen it
they will keep on going.
Sitting there, I realized we are all, we Americans, for the
the descendants of refugees of one kind or another. Perhaps
what is behind the extraordinary generosity we have had toward
parts of the world. It is our strength; it is our reality,
though one we
forget too often once a generation or two has been born here.
My family came to America because my great-grandparents were
of Germany by their family.
Sitting there in that night that was quieter than it should
listening to Jon and his stories from the front, watching
family interface, it was re-enforced for me that we are all
one sort or another, we Americans, who seem to so rarely live
It is our blessing, if we embrace it.