Oscar-Nominated Syrian Filmmaker Barred From U.S.

U.S. immigration authorities blocked entry to Khaled Khatib, the cinematographer of "The White Helmets," which follows volunteer first responders on the front lines of Syria's civil war

The "White Helmets" respond to an airstrike in Aleppo, Syria. 2014 — Reuters
Feb 26, 2017 at 5:16 AM ET

The Department of Homeland Security has barred U.S. entry to 21-year-old Khaled Khatib, the Syrian cinematographer behind the Oscar-nominated “The White Helmets,” a documentary chronicling volunteer rescue workers in Syria’s six-year civil war.

Istanbul-based Khaled Khatib was scheduled to fly to attend the Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Saturday before being told that he needed a special passport waiver from the Syrian government, which he did not receive.

In a statement posted on Twitter, the group said that “unfortunately Khaled Khatib was not able to travel to the Oscars due to his passport being cancelled by the Syrian regime, despite having been issued a US visa specifically to attend the awards ceremony.” It added that the head of the White Helmets, Raed Saleh, also cancelled his plans to attend the ceremony after intense air strikes in Syria required his attention.

The government block was a last minute decision based on “derogatory information” found on Khatib, according to an internal Trump administration correspondence seen by the Associated Press. Khatib told the AP that he had not been detained, but did not elaborate further.

The AP asked Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Gillian Christensen how “derogatory information,” which could mean anything from terror ties to visa irregularities, applied to Khatib. “A valid travel document is required for travel to the United States,” she replied.

Shortly after President Donald Trump issued an executive order restricting travel into the United States by citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, including Syria, Khatib had vowed that he would attend the ceremony. “I plan to travel to L.A. for the Oscars, where the film is nominated for an award. If we win this award, it will show people across Syria that people around the world support them. It will give courage to every volunteer who wakes up every morning to run towards bombs,” he said in a statement.

Khatib’s 40-minute documentary follows the work of the White Helmets — also known as the Syrian Civil Defense — a group of former teachers, bakers, and lawyers who volunteer as first responders to save civilians caught in the crossfires of Syria’s brutal civil war. They say that they have saved more than 80,000 lives, including 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh from Aleppo, Syria. The boy’s image dominated international headlines in August after video was released showing him sitting, stunned and covered in blood and dust, in an ambulance after an airstrike on his city; before learning that his 10-year-old brother Ali was killed in that same attack.

Medical rescue workers have been regularly targeted by Bashar al-Assad’s military. Since March 2011, at least 738 Syrian doctors, nurses, and medical aides have died in more than 360 attacks on medical facilities, according to the NGO Physicians for Human Rights. Over 130 White Helmets have died on duty since the group started in 2013, the group has reported.

The White Helmets were nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, though the award ultimately went to Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos for brokering a deal to end his country’s half century-long civil war.

The saga of Khatib and the White Helmets, however, is not the first case involving Trump’s travel ban and the Middle Eastern film community. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose drama “The Salesman” is nominated for best foreign film, is boycotting the Oscars, saying that his trip is being “accompanied by ifs and buts which are in no way acceptable to me even if exceptions were to be made for my trip.”

With four other foreign film nominees, Farhadi issued a joint statement on Friday expressing “unanimous and emphatic disapproval of the climate of fanaticism and nationalism we see today in the U.S. and in so many other countries.”

“Human rights are not something you have to apply for. They simply exist – for everybody. For this reason, we dedicate this award to all the people, artists, journalists and activists who are working to foster unity and understanding, and who uphold freedom of expression and human dignity – values whose protection is now more important than ever,” read the statement.