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Documentary portrays harsh lives of refugee children in Pakistan

A young boy's voice chants a Muslim prayer into an empty sky in the opening scene of Terror's Children, a new documentary about Afghan refugee children in Pakistan.

The camera pans to show the boy, 10-year-old Khal Mohammed, sitting on the floor of a madrassah, an Islamic religious school, in a refugee camp near Karachi. "God willing, we will strike," he says starkly into the camera. "We would strike so that Americans would repent for Afghanistan. Real Muslim hearts would be glad. And America's veins would be cut."

Sharmeen Obaid, 24, a Pakistani graduate student in international policy studies at Stanford, says she made Terror's Children because she wants viewers to think about what can happen to a society in the aftermath of an armed conflict. "Two wars might be over -- Afghanistan and Iraq -- but look at what you're leaving behind," she says. "How often do you see anything in the news about Afghan refugees or even Afghanistan? Refugee problems, people fighting, people dying -- it's still going on."

The documentary, made for Discovery Times, a new digital cable channel partly owned by the New York Times, follows the lives of eight Afghan refugee boys and girls living in and near the port city of Karachi during the summer of 2002. Since the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country, many to neighboring Pakistan. Almost half of the refugees are children, including those such as Khal Mohammed, who have been sent by their families to escape the fighting at home.

The children live in poverty, with groups of boys surviving in desperate circumstances by picking through garbage for recyclable trash to sell. Others, such as Khal Mohammed, live and study in madrassahs, some of which openly advocate pro-Taliban, hardline Islamic fundamentalism.

The two girls in the film, Laila, 9, and Anissa, 11, live isolated lives in Jadeed, Pakistan's largest refugee camp, a warren of narrow lanes and mud-brick houses where education and health care are luxuries for most children. Although the girls tell Obaid they want to learn, they are fatalistic about their future. When asked, Anissa says she wants to be a doctor: "Yes, I will study. If my mother lets me, I will. If my father doesn't, I won't." When Laila is asked if it is good to be a girl or a boy, she answers quietly, "It is good to be a boy." Asked to explain why, she answers, "The boy's mother and father like him." The interviewer asks, "They don't like the girl?" Laila replies, "No."

Obaid, born and raised in an affluent family in Karachi, had no filmmaking experience when she decided to make a documentary about the refugee children she saw picking through garbage around her house and working odd jobs around the city. A 2001 Smith College graduate in economics and government, Obaid had written articles about Pakistan for the Philadelphia Inquirer and a small weekly in Nova Scotia, but was frustrated with the result. "I thought the news stories did no justice to the living conditions in the refugee camps," she says. "People read a newspaper, put it down and go about their business. They might feel empathy toward these children, but they don't really get an image unless they've been to that part of the world."

After sending documentary proposals to "literally hundreds of people" with no response, Obaid's break came with an e-mail from NYT Television, a production company. After several meetings with network officials, she secured an initial $6,000 loan, with an agreement to repay everything if the company didn't like her work. On top of that, Obaid received a grant from Smith College's Kahn Liberal Arts Institute to support the project.

From the start, Obaid made it clear that she wanted to produce a film with a Muslim perspective. "I told the New York Times this would not be an objective film," she says. "The fact that I wrote this documentary proposal is because it's so close to my heart."

Obaid approached her prospective subjects in Pakistan -- many of whom were initially dismissive because she is young and female -- with the same argument. "I would go in [to the madrassahs] and say, 'I want to tell your story from a Muslim perspective, so help me. It will be good for you. If you're not trying to hide something, then the West should know what you're doing. You are doing some sort of service, you are educating some children,'" she says. However, she adds, "a lot of people were very wary."

Despite setbacks, Obaid eventually succeeded in gaining access to several children. Throughout the filming, she asked herself how a Western journalist might have pursued the project differently. "They would have gone for the sensationalist children -- the children who had actually fought in the war -- because that would have been more of a story for them," she answers. "For me, more of a story was the ordinary lives of these children. They're not that ordinary."

The result is a film that engages the viewer in a powerful yet subtle manner. "It's not a detached story," Obaid says. "It draws you in. Anyone who watches it will want to know what's happening to the children now."

Since the film was completed, most of the children have gone back to Afghanistan. Obaid plans to produce a follow-up film in one or two years.

This summer, Obaid will return to Pakistan with a new contract from Discovery Times to make a documentary about female politicians in Pakistan and the rise of the religious right. Her first work "really gave me more of a drive to make other films out of Pakistan," she says. "It gave me a sense that things are wrong in my country and people should know about it from our perspective."


Terror's Children will be shown at 7 p.m. on May 5 and 7 at Bechtel International Center. Obaid will be present to discuss the film and answer questions at the May 5 screening.


By Lisa Trei

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