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'Flee' creators on being a refugee: It's not an identity, it's a circumstance of life

Amin's character in the animated documentary <em>Flee</em>.
Amin's character in the animated documentary Flee.

The film Flee opens with a question: "What does the word 'home' mean to you?"

Amin Nawabi's childhood home was Kabul, Afghanistan. It was a busy and dynamic city where he could be "a little different."

In the opening scenes of the film, you see an animated version of the young Nawabi, unafraid of wearing his sister's dress while carelessly running through the streets, blasting music through headphones.

This picture of a charming childhood changed when the mujahideen took over Afghanistan, forcing Nawabi to run.

Flee is a mostly animated documentary about the real-life story of Nawabi, which is a pseudonym used to protect his true identity. It explores the trauma of being forced to leave your home and the difficult circumstances faced by refugees.

"We never really heard about refugees, about their lives, their experiences prior to their journey in their home countries," he tells NPR. "And what we knew were often not very positive."

"I wanted to tell that story also to the entire world that there is more into this concept of being a refugee. There are human beings behind this concept and they are not much different than everyone else."

Nawabi pushes against defining people by their situations. Being a refugee is "not an identity, it's a circumstance of life," he says.

Nawabi was smuggled out of Afghanistan as a teenager by human traffickers and eventually made his way to Denmark where he sought refuge. He was alone, and was given instructions to tell officials his family had died in order to make it easier for him to get asylum.

And he had another secret — he was gay, and felt that disclosing this information could put loved ones in danger.

"There were a lot of fear and uncertainties," he said. The implications of sharing his story could be dangerous for his family, even to this day.

Amin and his husband-to-be in <em>Flee</em>.
Amin and his husband-to-be in Flee.

Nawabi tells his story in Flee, concealed by animation.

The documentary has made history as the first film to be nominated for Best Animated Feature, Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film.

It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and was awarded the top Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema in the documentary category.

But before all the acclaim and accolades was Nawabi's desire to simply share his story and bring a sense of humanity to the refugee experience. But it would take him decades to feel comfortable enough to share the circumstances that forced him to flee.

In high school, he would meet Flee director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, and the pair would become close friends.

"Growing up in a very small village with like 500 people in it and then suddenly have someone who was kind of your own age and who stood out, was like, OK, this is interesting," Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen and Nawabi's friendship would grow in their small town in Denmark. Rasmussen would also become one of the few people Nawabi would trust.

It took more than a decade, but Nawabi would become comfortable enough to have his childhood friend make his story into a documentary.

Rasmussen said the film was "a story about the importance of sharing and listening and how the stories that people have within them affect them in every day of their life and how much people can carry around."

Nawabi is carrying a little less around. He says the film has given him a sense of freedom.

"I think it's quite limiting to not be able to disclose intimate information about yourself to your friends," he said. "Now I am able to talk about these things. And also I feel that my friends, they know me for who I am because they know the stories that they didn't know back then."

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ayen Deng Bior is a producer at NPR's flagship evening news program, All Things Considered. She helps shape the sound of the daily shows by contributing story ideas, writing scripts and cutting tape. Her work at NPR has taken her to Warsaw, Poland, where she heard from refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. She has spoken to people in Saint-Louis, Senegal, who are grappling with rising seas. Before NPR, Bior wore many hats at the Voice of America's English to Africa service where she worked in radio, television and digital. Bior began her career reporting on the revolution in Sudan, the developing state of affairs in South Sudan and the experiences of women behind the headlines in both countries. In her spare time, Bior loves to kayak, read and bird watch.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.