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PBS series seeks to link Syrian, Central American refugees

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – Rarely has art attempted to link the plight of refugees in the Middle East with those in Central America.

Refugees in both regions face similar challenges: they are often fleeing violence and political upheaval and share similar journeys in crossing heavily armed borders with no certain future. But the differing cultures, religions even social classes sometimes mask some of the human elements that make the heart-wrenching migration universal.

Three new documentaries are set to air this month on PBS hope to make this connection as part of the third season of Doc World, a PBS/WORLD Channel series focusing on international issues.

It begins Sunday with "Sky and Ground," a full-length documentary about a large, extended Syrian-Kurdish family fleeing war-ravaged Aleppo for Germany.

Following that film are two short documentaries set to air Sept. 16 examining the journeys of Central Americans. "Los Comandos" follows 16-year-old Mimi, a volunteer emergency medic in El Salvador, who is forced to leave the country after getting caught in the crosshairs of violent gangs.

"Towards the North" examines the journeys of Nelly and her daughter Joseline, as they wait in a tiny refugee shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, with their eyes set on the United States, They, too, are escaping gang violence in Central America. The trio of films are produced by the company Show of Force.

Joshua Bennett, who co-directed all three projects, said producers were looking to piece together the story of the millions of people who are forced to leave their homes for the unknown and how the journey is universal.

"It was really a deliberate decision to make several films that showed the common push factors," Bennett said. "The reason that millions of people have to leave is similar."

Bennett said refugees in the United States and Europe currently face a backlash with the rise of neo-nationalism and often are the targets of blame for demographic uncertainty and economic anxiety. "These films are giving viewers human stories that show how we're more closely related to people from different countries than we actually know," Bennett said.

That's why Bennett and his co-director Talya Tibbon sought to present the terror the Nabi family face in refugees camps across Europe in "Sky and Ground" along with mundane concerns. As refugee Guevara Nabi seeks to lead his family through Serbia and Austria while avoiding police, the young travelers also worry about bathing or a doll that never leaves their side.

Juliana Schatz Preston, a Colombia-American filmmaker who co-directed “Los Comandos,” said the unaccompanied minor migrant crisis was at its peak in the U.S. in 2013 when she joined the project.

“I wanted to do something that was happening on the ground at its nexus point,” Preston said. “What would the conditions have to be to provoke you to leave?”

That’s how Preston stumbled upon a group from a volunteer emergency medical unit. In filming 16-year-old Mimi, at first Preston said she was hesitant to compare her mother’s family’s plight from violent Colombia of the 1980s.

“In Medellin, where my family is from, was once the most violent place in the world, very similar to what San Salvador is now,” Preston said, before pausing. “So, yeah, I guess I did have some inherent empathy that I didn’t know was there.”


Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras