"For Emory Assistant Professor Dr. Isabella Alexander, a normal day in Morocco consists of scavenging dump sites for food scraps with her brotherhood and hiding memory cards in the soles of her shoes. At night, she sleeps on the ground, always remaining alert to the sounds of an approaching police raid. An American journalist fluent in the local dialects, Alexander said that even as a foreigner, filming the routine human rights abuses against sub-Saharan migrants and refugees around Morocco's Spanish enclaves leaves her exposed to routine police harassment by both Spanish and Moroccan officials. She has spent many years living in the makeshift forest camps surrounding Ceuta and Melilla and continues to return annually, spending the months that she isn't teaching hidden from state-authorities and signs of city life. Now, she plans to expose the story of Africa's unseen migrant and refugee crisis to the world.
Alexander is currently completing a book titled, "Burning at Europe's Borders," and plans to release it alongside her first feature-length documentary film, "The Burning: An Untold Story from the Other Side of the Migrant Crisis," early next summer. While at Emory, she offers undergraduate and graduate courses focused on international human rights and the current crises of migrant and refugee displacement around the world. According to Alexander, the human rights crisis in Morocco is growing due to two systemic processes - individuals from war-torn and poverty-ridden countries across the sub-Saharan are crossing through Morocco in their attempts to reach Europe, and all Africans detained within Europe are being deported to Morocco, rather than being properly repatriated to their countries of origin. This crisis is reminiscent of the Syrian refugee crisis as families often break apart in the hopes that one among them will be able to reach a better life. Those traveling north turn to smuggling rings to aid in their movement towards Europe's southern borders. Yet, the small number who successfully make it to the E.U. learn that even after applying for refugee status, the rejection rate for sub-Saharan Africans is over 80 percent.
As a young white American researcher, Alexander said her positionality as an outsider to the crisis has helped her establish trust with a diverse group of actors, including Moroccan governmental agents, Nigerian smuggling rings, Spanish border guards, and the brotherhoods camped out in northern Morocco. “[My position] there makes me more vulnerable in a lot of ways. And I think my very vulnerability is the reason why I have been able to gain access [to these spaces] because I'm not read as a threatening force.”
It was painful to hear her describe the mentality of many young migrants and refugees, after living through years of brutal police harassment. “I don’t think death is the ultimate fear [for migrants and refugees],” Alexander said. “They talk about death so casually, their lives like a game of chance. I think the ultimate fear is never escaping the cycle they're trapped in." After having spent so many years in the camps with the brotherhoods, and having seen many of the young men killed at the hands of border guards, Alexander's commitment to the cause has become clear even to those there. “I listen to how [migrants and refugees] talk about journalists,” Alexander said. “They often tell me how journalists come to steal their stories, but how they believe I am there to help them tell their stories.” She prioritizes giving the migrants and refugees an active role in all of her research projects, including her most recent documentary film.
Back in the classroom, Alexander’s students attempt to unpack her anecdotes from the field. One of her students, Caroline Cohen (20C), asks herself how this is happening and how she didn’t know anything about it before taking Alexander's class last spring. Cohen spoke about how the overload of news content can be desensitizing, but how the personal stories are hard to forget. Alexander has a similar philosophy and hopes that the human element of the migrant and refugee crisis that she exposes to her students in class will also resonate with audiences who see her film and read her book. “I think the power of good storytelling is that you can pull individuals out from the masses and people can connect with those individual stories in a more intimate way. Once you have one individual who comes to mind - one face, one story - when you hear about a particular crisis in the news, it becomes that much harder for you to turn away.” Though Cohen says information coming from the news can sometimes be overwhelming, the connection that Alexander’s anecdotes make between the migrant crisis and the individuals effected by it is difficult to ignore. “The situation [in Morocco] is terrible,” Cohen said. “And I feel like I really understand just how terrible it is for the first time."
In preparation for the documentary’s official release, Alexander has been screening rough cuts of the film for university audiences across the country. “I always have a handful of European and Moroccan students in the audience at my screenings," she said, "and the fact that they are equally shocked to learn that this is unfolding in their backyard is, to me, evident of just how important it is that this story be broken."
After taking Alexander’s class, Johnna Gadomski (20C) decided that she would intern at a refugee aid center in Atlanta this summer. “I had never thought of the right to migrate as such an essential part of our basic human rights,” Gadomski said. “[Alexander] definitely changed my perception of human rights, and how subjective the application of them can be. Who gets human rights? And who decides? Her class has made me question why certain people are not afforded the rights they deserve.” Gadomski also spoke to how much she appreciates Alexander’s effort to integrate materials from her own research into her classes. “She’s done a really good job of never reducing [the migrants and refugees] down to stories of vulnerability but maintaining their humanity as complete individuals,” Gadomski said.
Alexander said ultimately, she hopes that like her class, her larger work will impact the public’s understanding of the migrant and refugee crisis and lead to concrete changes at the Spanish-Morocco border. “We draw a stark line between these two categories - the migrant and the refugee - and I hope my work encourages audiences to think about how they are often one in the same, and how the label that is assigned to an individual is often based on racial or gendered prejudices about them and their ability to assert vulnerability in crises." We, too, hope that her work will reach and inspire broad audiences as it has done here on Emory campus..."
I'm deeply honored for my work on the other side of the migrant crisis to be profiled by State Senator Will Brownsberger today...
"Every once in a while you run into a story that you can’t quite believe and you just want to hear more.
I recently found myself seated for dinner next to Isabella Alexander - an anthropologist who has spent many months living in the makeshift camps home to sub-Saharan African boys and men trying desperately to reach Europe.
Her courage, putting herself out there alone in a dangerous environment, borders on recklessness. But the story she brought back deserves hearing, and surely, there was no other way for her to get it. It starkly illustrates the increasingly painful dilemmas that we will all face around immigration policy in the decades to come..."
Don't miss your chance to sign up for an exclusive early-release trailer to THE BURNING... Add your email address to the list by this Friday!
Proud to be profiled by the Creative Visions Foundation as one of the projects fighting for migrant & refugee rights in this difficult time... #TheBurning
So honored to be selected alongside these incredible filmmakers!
I encourage you to check out the complete list of projects selected by the Creative Visions Foundation this year and learn more about the important work they're doing for our global community...
"C.A.P. makes it possible for creative activists to develop new projects that use the power of visual storytelling to raise awareness, drive change, and create sustainable solutions to global issues.
Over the last 10 years, the Creative Visions Foundation has assisted over 200 projects from 35 different countries, reaching millions of people with their stories. These projects have gone on to create policy change in the areas of human rights, environmental protection, and education.
What will they do next?"
Don't miss the first 'Sneak Peak' of THE BURNING at Emory University [special thanks to my students for organizing this event!]
"Isabella Alexander is an artist with a passion. And her passion has a purpose." - Erin Bernhardt, Award-winning Filmmaker and Director of The Art Farm
"As an anthropologist, I've spent many years living in hidden forest camps that have housed hundreds of thousands of African migrants and refugees awaiting their chance at crossing to a better tomorrow – men, women, and children who survive under desperate conditions before attempting to scale a treacherous ring of razor-wire fences that separate Morocco from the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. These Spanish enclaves bring Europe within the confines of the African continent. They also position Morocco as the primary crossing point for African migrants and refugees who are prepared to risk it all.
For the first time this summer, I returned to Morocco's hidden forest camps as not only an anthropologist, but as a documentary filmmaker. I returned with a camera and the goal of bringing home a different kind of story. I knew that through film I would be able to access broader audiences and give the individuals who are trapped at the core of the current Migrant and Refugee Crisis a chance to tell their stories in their own words. But what I didn’t know was how my camera would open up new depths for me as a researcher, too.
Individuals like Phino, Yasmine, and Bambino were eager to give narrative to the unseen crisis that is unfolding on the other side of Europe's borders. They shared their journeys with remarkable courage, vulnerability, and humor. What came as the biggest surprise to me was that they were even more open with you – their future audiences – than they had been with me. I arrived to Morocco concerned about how my camera would make it more difficult for me, the anthropologist, to camouflage myself in the camps that I had spent so much time in over the years. But I left Morocco confident that the camera presents an opportunity that my pen and paper had not. It presents the opportunity for migrants and refugees to become their own storytellers."
Continue reading and see more images from my recent research trip here!
“We are a race of artists. What are we