“Refuge”: Across the Great Divide

Heval Kelli, a Kurdish Syrian Muslim refugee living in Clarkston, just outside the Perimeter from here, exudes the kind of human empathy you can see in his very being. He listens quietly and attentively, and in responding to what even the most troubled or inarticulate person says, he seems to have just the right words. We saw this in the documentary “Refuge,” which five of us watched in a nearly empty Plaza theater Wednesday afternoon, the matinee (after we were turned away from the sold-out premiere on Sunday).

The man’s empathy, half saint-like, half bemused with irony, has three layers, I think. One is his experience as a refugee. His father was tortured. He spent his youth in a refugee camp. By the sheerest random luck, he got to America a few days after 9/11, and was sent to Clarkston, now called the most ethnically diverse square mile in America because of its welcoming structures for refugees from places like Syria and Somalia. A second layer is his quiet religious practice as a Muslim. He prays in the traditional way five times a day, and performs the duties of compassion and peace from the Koran. And finally, there’s the overlay of being an Emory cardiologist. He is trained well by the institution and Hippocratic oath to pay close attention to illness of body and soul in others, both meanings of the word “heart.”

We grow cynical about doctors, who seem to pursue specialties that separate them from the whole person, specialties that pay a lot more than general practice. But when I see Dr. Kelli, “call me Heval,” in the film, I think of Libby’s visit to a Hispanic cardiologist at Emory’s hospital on North Decatur Road, and my visit to a native Indian periodontist yesterday, Dr. Ash. They both exuded the same feeling of compassion as Dr. Kelli, which I now associate with a special gratitude and patriotism I sense in American immigrants who have achieved the height of success in the healing arts. Dr. Ash put his hand on my shoulder as he came from behind while I sat pitched back the dentist’s chair, and touched me the same way when he left. When I complained about my recent experience trying to get some reimbursement or explanation for the $1,042 I paid for getting a crown at this same big dentistry office, he agreed with me wholeheardedly about the shame of the U.S. not having universal healthcare. Even his native India, he said, has a more humane healthcare system. There are several doctors in his extended family, and all are for universal healthcare, he said. And he is horrified at the prevalence of guns here . .  He seemed to say without words, about guns: “Don’t get me started.”

Heval was an obvious protagonist for the two University of Virginia alumnae who decided to make this documentary, “Refuge,” after they were shocked by the Unite the Right rally in their beloved Charlottesville in 2017. There’s a scene in the movie where Heval welcomes a Republican Primary candidate for governor who arrives in Clarkston, by some miscalculation, on his “Deportation Bus” tour of Georgia. Heval offers him some good baklava, which Williams samples with the forced courtesy of the campaign trail. (Williams ended up with less than 5% of the primary vote, while Kemp, running ads of him hunting illegals with a shotgun, went on to barely beat Stacey Abrams that year.)

The heart of the documentary is about Heval’s relationship with another man, the extreme version of the type who would vote for a Williams or a Kemp. Chris Buckley is an Army veteran living in Lafayette, in the northwest corner of Georgia near the Tennessee and Alabama state lines. The relationship makes a powerful case for an answer to “hate groups” like those at the Charlottesville rally. The film shows the effectiveness of getting those who resent the Other to know one of them well. Chris, a heavily tattooed son of an abusive father, came back from traumatic experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan with an addiction to pain meds that evolved into a crystal meth habit that was tearing him away from a wife and son. He found his way clear of drugs with a 12-step program. But it goes further. A counselor with “Parents for Peace” introduces him to Heval, on the notion that a 12-step program to overcome a ritualized hatred of Muslims (Chris had joined the local Klan) required a relationship with a Muslim. It worked, creating a road show out of Heval and Chris with their message, and this powerful documentary under the Katie Couric brand. (Couric, who briefly replaced Dan Rather as anchor of CBS Evening News, also went to UVa.)

One scene that struck me powerfully was Heval first driving through Lafayette, Ga., in his late-model black Mercedes-Benz. He is shocked by the poverty, the hovels and trailers, the despair that makes such communities the ruined gardens of opioid addiction or make Trump’s gilt-edge delusions so appealing. I feel the heartbreak of this landscape. I have seen it in Rockbridge County, Va., and in Pickens County, Ga., so close to the bountiful nature and communities I have loved. From a purely compassionate vantage, without the politics or sociology, this glimpse of rural poverty, where mostly white Appalachian folks dwell in a forgotten or stereotyped America, floods me with love and sympathy. Yes, these folks are resentful. Why wouldn’t they be? I also understand a very different resentfulness – the bitter resentment of a young Black Lives Matters activist or some white allies who empathize with that Black experience. But to the forgotten or demeaned Appalachian folks, it must be appalling that the “resentment” of young BLM protestors is presented sympathetically by the “liberal media” while the culture calls their resentment “hate” and “racist.”

I shouldn’t judge like this. Heval doesn’t seem to judge. He merely utters the sounds of sorrow and shock, a compassionate refugee driving through a land like his own war-ravaged homeland, astonished that Americans could forget these children of their land and history.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “Refuge”: Across the Great Divide

  1. Aly says:

    You offer a well crafted connection between cultures and concern. Differences enlarge the understanding of life. Similarities reflect what we already know. Fear occurs when we come to believe we know what we think we should believe. Hope comes from embracing what we don’t know through eyes of people we don’t know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s