How These Refugee Sisters Made It To Sweden

Filmmaker Aliya Naumoff met sisters Rahaf, 21, and Habari, 17, in the spring of 2015, when she was filming a documentary about Syrian refugee women in Turkey.

The connection was instant.

“I sat down and interviewed [Rahaf], and during the interview, we were both crying. It was so intense,” Naumoff told Refinery29. “I could see that being any one of my friends. I could see Rahaf being anyone that I would know in New York, in the States.”

The two became friends and kept in touch via Facebook after Naumoff left. Then one day in the fall, Naumoff got a Facebook message that Rahaf wanted to head to Sweden.

“I said, okay. Well, I want to try to help you, but I’m not sure how," she recalled. "Maybe I can pitch it as a film or something.”

At the time, Naumoff figured Rahaf's idea was still in the early stages of planning. But two weeks later she got another message: "Aliya, how are you, I’m in Greece.’”

The message marked the beginning of Naumoff’s role as guide, helper, and anchor point in the sisters’ journey to Sweden. By way of the internet, she found them safe places to sleep, told them when the trains were running, and even advised them to remove their hijabs so they were less clearly marked as refugees — something she and Rahaf argued over. "I was reading things in the news, or looking at maps, and kind of just guiding them, more emotionally, through it," Naumoff said. "Saying, ‘let me help you however I can.’”

Rahaf and Habari are two of an estimated 4.9 million Syrian refugees forced to flee their homes. More than three-quarters of them are women and children, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The organization found that more than one million people have made the journey from Turkey to Greece since 2015, many of them in dangerous sea crossings like the one Rahaf and Habari faced.

Naumoff spoke to Refinery29 about making the film, her relationship to the sisters now, and the role she played in helping their journey from afar.
Advertisement
As we see in your documentary, Rahaf and Habari were detained in Denmark, when they were so close to making it to Sweden. What happened?
“They were held with a bunch of other Syrian people overnight. It was like two days. I think Denmark just didn’t know what to do. They just held them and they weren’t letting them pass through.

“I actually think Denmark was the most gentle place. They just held them. They didn’t beat them, or steal their things. In other places, they stole all their belongings and beat them.”

What was your reaction when you found out they were being held?
“I was just so upset because I thought that finally they were free and they were going to make it there. The night before, I actually read in the newspaper that Denmark wasn’t allowing Syrian refugees to pass. So I was nervous and worried about it, but I was just so frustrated. I was so frustrated that these sweet little girls were just trying to get to Sweden to create their new life, and were just going through so much shit after they had been through so much shit in their life already.”

You’re flying back to Sweden to surprise Habari for her upcoming 18th birthday! How do you think she'll react?
“She’s just going to freak out! I didn’t know if I could go, actually. I made it happen last minute. I said, ‘I don’t think I can go, Habari,’ and I could just tell she was so upset. She’s been a little bummed out, I think, because of it. I said to Rahaf — when I realized I could possibly go — I said, ‘I think I can just get a flight for a few days. What do you think?’ And she said, ‘honestly Aliya, that’s all she wants for her birthday, is for you to be here.’ It was so sweet."

You say Rahaf and Habari are like family now — you're bringing them a care package from your parents, who call them
granddaughters. Are they planning to stay in Sweden, or would you want to bring them to the USA?
“Oh my god. I would love to bring them to the United States! We’re not accepting any Syrian refugees. I mean, barely any. There is an idea that we will accept people if they can be accounted for, so because I know the girls and their family there’s a possibility, but it’s not looking very good.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Advertisement