Penn student’s documentary examines the media’s role in the refugee crisis

Sonari Chidi, 20, a filmmaker and student at University of Pennsylvania, made

Sonari Chidi, 20, a filmmaker and student at University of Pennsylvania, made "Shattering Refuge," an award-winning documentary short on the role of the media in the refugee crisis. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

The world is experiencing its largest refugee crisis since World War II with nearly 69 million people forcibly displaced by war, violence, and persecution in 2017 alone, according to the United Nations.

How do refugees and asylum seekers feel about how their stories are being told by the media?

That question is what sparked a new documentary by a Philadelphia student.

Sonari Chidi is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Cinema and Media Studies, and Africana Studies. The 20-year-old Los Angeles native, who also has acting credits that include the sitcoms “Modern Family” and “The Mindy Project,” says he’s interested in using film to highlight the stories of underrepresented people, and “drive social change.”

“I had seen a lot of representations of refugees and a lot of talk about refugees and forcibly displaced people in the news, specifically Western media,” Chidi said. “But what I noticed was I didn’t really see or hear the refugee’s voices themselves.”

In “Shattering Refuge,” Chidi speaks to refugees, asylum-seekers, officials and journalists in Kenya, Jordan, and the United States, including WHYY’s Laura Benshoff.

“One missing narrative in the media, in the politics, is that these human-beings never chose to be a refugee,” said Fatemah Shams, assistant professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Penn, and a stateless refugee, in the film. “They’re victims of the status quo. They’re victims of the very same headlines, and the very same politics behind these headlines.”

The film has already won a Social Justice Award from the Rough Cuts Film Festival in 2018, but Chidi says he’s after more than accolades.

“The award is great and I am really excited,” he said. “But what really excites me is when people watch the film and they feel compelled to do something now that they’ve seen it. That’s what I would love hopefully everyone to leave the film feeling like.”

The film premieres Monday evening at 5 p.m. at Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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