Q&A: Acclaimed British actress finds new role as humanitarian

News Stories, 17 April 2009

© UNHCR/B.Auger
British actress Romola Garai on the other side of the camera.

LONDON, United Kingdom, April 17 (UNHCR) Romola Garai is an up-and-coming British actress of the stage and screen, best known internationally for her performance in the award-winning film, "Atonement." She also has a keen interest in humanitarian affairs and recently visited Iraqi refugees in Syria and displaced Palestinians on the Iraqi-Syria border with the help of the UN refugee agency. For a change, she was on the other side of the camera, shooting rare footage of the lives, suffering and courage of those she came across in the arid and cramped Al Tanf camp, which is located in the no-man's land between Syria and Iraq. In an e-mail exchange with UNHCR Senior External Affairs Officer Peter Kessler, Garai discusses her trip and her interest in displaced people and their stories. Excerpts:

When did you become interested in refugees?

I live in London and am lucky to have many friends from school, university and work who are from diverse backgrounds. Some of my closest friends are the children of refugees and I have always been fascinated by their stories and the struggle of how they came to the UK and assimilated into society. I first heard about the plight of the Palestinian and Iraqi refugees after attending an event for World Refugee Day [on June 20, 2008] in London.

What did you learn during your visit to Syria and the Iraqi border?

A lot, but here are some of the things that stick out. I learned a lot about the troubled histories of three different groups: the Palestinians from Iraq, the Iraqis themselves, and the Syrian people. This was a lot of information for someone who is no expert on the Middle East to take in, but it was all absolutely necessary to understanding the situation in Syria.

I learned incredible things about what is important to people. It was amazing to me to discover the extent to which being in a supportive community, feeling part of a group, is such an essential part of any person's ability to cope with displacement. The most isolated people I met always seemed the most desperate.

I learned to listen. When someone is telling you the personal details of their life, show them respect and feel honoured to be given access to their stories. Always ask their name, look them in the eye, show you are trying to understand. I learned how to use my video camera!

How did your experience on this trip compare with your day job?

It's very different. Firstly I'm an actor, not a film-maker, so my experience of shooting and editing film is very small mainly picked up from watching others on film sets. I had to learn how to make a film from scratch basically, but it was great fun failing, failing again, but failing better!

What do you hope your film about the Palestinians in Al Tanf and your advocacy on behalf of the refugees in Syria will achieve in the UK?

Relocation. The UK should be taking a lot of the people in the camp. It's a small number, only 800, and they have already proved themselves willing and able to make a huge contribution to a society. So many problems in the Middle East are huge, complicated issues that will take years of diplomacy to unravel. This is a problem that could be fixed today.

Do you plan to do more to raise awareness about refugees?

Yes. I would love to do the same sort of thing again; maybe a short follow-up film to chart the changing situation of the Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.

Should the British be doing more to help?

Yes. It was our war too.... It is unquestionably our moral responsibility to help the people who have had their lives destroyed by the war in Iraq.

What are you working on now?

I'm filming a four-part adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma" for the BBC I'm playing Emma.