Meet the Penn students and faculty making films to advocate for refugee communities


Photo: Katharine Cocherl

While many Penn students seek out summer internships at large companies, a group of eight Penn undergraduates, two teaching assistants, and a Cinema & Media Studies professor spent this past summer in a different setting: collaborating with refugees to make short films in  Kakuma, Kenya.

Three of these students and the professor, Peter Decherney, joined a panel at Perry World House on Nov. 7 to discuss their experiences on the trip, their thoughts on the global refugee crisis, and to premiere some of the films they produced at the Kakuma refugee camp as part of the Penn-in-Kenya program

The films shown included an instructional film on protection from sexual and gender-based violence in the camp, a film about the community’s relationship with water and sanitation, and portions of a 360 degree video showing children at the camp in a crowded classroom.

Decherney said the group hoped technologies like virtual reality could change the tone of images like a crowded classroom to reflect the warmth of the community, an effect he finds harder to convey in a flat image.

Photo: Katharine Cocherl

Other members of the panel included former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard and Keefe Murren, the executive director of FilmAid International, an organization that aims in part to train displaced individuals in filmmaking to document their experiences and to inform other refugees.

Most of the 20-day program in Kenya, which was organized in conjunction with FilmAid International, was spent filming and interacting with refugees at Kakuma.

College senior Nicholas Escobar worked on music composition for the films produced during the trip and donated the keyboard he brought with him to FilmAid. 

“There were a lot of musicians there, and they’re all very passionate about what they do,” he said, noting the interest in making hip-hop music at the camp. 

“My hope is that they can make their own beats behind their own vocals because I think that can help take them to the next level creatively,” he said. “They already have the creativity.”

Photo: Katharine Cocherl

Escobar and College sophomore Sonari Chidi are now the co-presidents of Penn FilmAid, the first FilmAid affiliate organization on a college campus.

The group seeks not only to teach students on Penn’s campus about the process of making documentary films, but also to engage with global refugee communities and resettled refugees in the Philadelphia region.

“We want to work with them to hear their story, how they’re settling into Philadelphia, and just what life has been like for them,”  FilmAid Vice President and College sophomore Laurel Jaffe said.

Chidi added that he hopes these films change how people think about refugees.

“People don’t consider that refugees had a full and vibrant life before they became refugees,” Chidi said. “This experience of being a refugee isn’t all that they are. They’re so much more than that.”

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