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The Youngest Refugees of the War on Terrorism

First-time filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid ’01 of Karachi, Pakistan, is the producer of a one-hour documentary, Terror’s Children, to be aired on the Discovery Channel this spring. Funded in large part by Smith College’s Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, the film explores the lives of seven displaced Afghani children who fled to Karachi after September 11.

Photo by Sharmeen Obaid ’01.

With her film, Obaid wants to show the world “the other face of war and terror, the one that specifically is that of the children.” To do so she spent much of last summer interviewing refugee Afghanis and filming them in the camps, markets and Islamic religious schools (madrassas) in Karachi. But it was this generation of Afghani children growing up in a foreign country, “living in refugee camps and subjected to abject poverty,” who became her main focus.

In the last year of her studies at Smith, Obaid, an economics and government major, was a student fellow with the Kahn Institute. She decided on the idea for her documentary while conducting research in 2000–01 for the Anatomy of Exile project organized by Peter Rose, Kahn Senior Fellow and Sophia Smith Professor of Sociology and Anthropology. Obaid’s research for the Exile project was an exploration of the migration process of the Hindus and Muslims as a result of the British partitioning of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

Obaid describes herself as a Muslim Pakistani woman who grew up in a relatively affluent household in Karachi, a port city and commercial capital. Her father is a textile exporter and is currently the honorary consul general for Sri Lanka in Pakistan; her mother is a social worker and heads the fund-raising efforts for SOS Children’s Villages in Karachi, an international chain of charitable social welfare organizations providing care and shelter to homeless and abandoned children.

Obaid recalls returning home after September 11, 2001, and being struck by the massive influx of refugees who had fled from Afghanistan and the war on terrorism and were now highly visible in the city. She spent part of December 2001 speaking with and getting to know the refugees, especially the children.

“I saw for myself what it was like to be a refugee in a third-world country,” she writes in a background narrative that accompanied her film proposal. “At first, it was very hard; no one spoke my language and people were wary of a young woman prying into their lives. But slowly a few of the children and their families opened up to me and told me about their lives in Afghanistan and then Pakistan.”

Despite being a novice producer and the only woman on her film crew, Obaid forged ahead with her proposed project in a country where the majority of people consider women to be second-class citizens. She filmed for eight weeks.

Photo by Sharmeen Obaid ’01.

Obaid kept her head covered at all times, as is customary for all Afghani women above the age of 14, but not her face. Men told her she was not attired “according to the wishes of Islam,” and she was harassed for being a woman working outside the home. Ultimately, she hired armed guards to protect her while she worked, and undaunted, she pressed on.

“The world should know that while the war on terrorism continues…there is an entire generation of Afghani children growing up in refugee camps and madrassas in Pakistan who are desperate and frustrated,” she says. “In 10 to 20 years, if they fall into bad company, these will be the next generation of terrorists.”

Obaid, who is now in graduate school at Stanford, will return to Smith this spring to deliver a presentation coinciding with the television broadcast of Terror’s Children. Watch for more details as they are announced on the Web site: -- JME

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