Interview with the Director

Mouhanad A. Al-Rifay, Director and Producer

Mouhanad is a Syrian-American writer, documentary filmmaker, and international development professional. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.

How do you feel about the Syrian crisis and what is your connection to it?

Syria is my home country. Seeing it torn apart in this horrific war, is devastating. To me Syria is a bleeding wound, that will never heal. We left Syria in September of 2005 after direct death threats from the Assad regime. We were under a travel ban, unallowed to leave the country. I was a teenager and I didn’t fully understand all that was happening. My parents had a human rights foundation and a publishing house based in Damascus. I haven’t been back since we left.

What made you start this project?

This documentary is a reflection on what has happened to Syria since the start of the uprising in 2011. I wanted to tell the story of this revolution through the eyes of children, who continue to suffer most. When the revolution erupted, Syrians were full of hope for freedom and democracy. We truly believed in the power of this revolution and its ability to change Syria for the better. I still do. I see Tomorrow’s Children as a testimony on the immediate horrifying effects of this revolution and a reminder of its original goals – building a democratic free Syria for tomorrow’s children.

Did you face any challenges working on this project?

Every aspect of this project was challenging. We started with an idea that grew organically with limited resources. Everyone who worked on this project is a volunteer. Each donated their time and talent. We covered all costs individually and personally. We dealt with language difficulties, the editor and videographer don’t speak Arabic, which complicated all aspects of production and post-production. One of the biggest challenges was storyboarding. We did not plan the project in its current format ahead of time. The original plan was to create short individual interviews with the kids. After shooting, we saw the potential of the footage and decided to create a short documentary. We couldn’t travel back to Turkey to shoot additional footage for the full documentary. We had to work with what we have. We constructed this story out of fragmented pieces. It was a major learning experience for all of us. Given the difficulties, I believe we created an outstanding documentary that authentically amplifies the voices of Syrian refugee children and shows their plight honestly.

How is the Syria crisis connected globally in your opinion?

We can’t ignore the effects of the Syrian crisis globally. Beside the global refugee crisis and the worldwide extremist terrorist attacks, standing aside witnessing the ongoing slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria will be engraved in our human consciousness for ever. Humanity collectively failed the Syrian people, and over the years we turned a blind eye to them. Ignoring their cries every single day. Our ability to turn away as cities are wiped out, millions are displaced, and hundreds of thousands systematically killed by a brutal dictatorship is beyond belief. To me the effects of the Syrian crisis are deeper than we can comprehend. Helplessly watching the Syrian war unfold on every mobile screen and social media page every single day, forced us all to collectively lose faith in our common humanity. Our human values have proven inadequate, they were shattered at the feet of the Syrian children.

How is your relationship with the kids featured in Tomorrow’s Children?

Every child featured in this documentary is absolutely amazing. I am astonished by their ability to combat despair with hope and persevere in the face of outstanding difficulties. Over the years, I got to know Shrivan well. He is a passionate artist, with wonderful talents and amazing resilience. He tirelessly pursued his education. Shrivan worked every day in Turkey to support his family while preparing for Syrian school exams, on his own. He returned to Aleppo alone, despite the ongoing armed clashes, to take and pass final standard exams of eighth and ninth grades. Shrivan risked his life to complete his education. He fully understands that education is his only way to move forward and combat dire circumstances. In 2016 SANAD, with the support of small donations by amazing people, was able to help Shrivan enroll in a Turkish school. He successfully finished tenth grade. Recently, he was reunited with his father in Germany.

On a personal level, how do you help Syria? How can other millennials make a difference?

To most people the crisis in Syria is complicated and overwhelming. As a Syrian living in the west, I see it as my basic duty to represent the Syrian people well in my everyday life. The Syrian culture is absolutely amazing. Syrians are hard working, highly educated, generous and welcoming. Supporting and advocating on behalf of the Syrian refugees should be an ongoing process, but it’s not enough. It is essential that we continue to call for a peaceful and just resolution to this conflict. A resolution that acknowledges the grievances of the victims, puts an end to the armed struggle, and prosecutes the criminals.

Millennials and everyone else, have the ability to sponsor Syrian students and donate to scholarship funds. Helping one child go back to school instead of working day-in and day-out, is enormous. Each child represents a family, social unit, and the basic building block of society. We should never underestimate the impact of small individual contributions. Shrivan went back to school with the help of many small donations to the SANAD Education Fund.

Are you hopeful for the future?

History teaches us that each great nation of today, went through a struggle to move forward. Syria is struggling today to liberate itself from the claws of dictatorship. This struggle is unbearable with no end in sight. But in the scheme of human history, Syria is on the right path to freedom, dignity and democracy. Supporting the children, especially through education, is an investment in Syria’s future. In spite of all the destruction, I deeply believe that Syria will prevail in the end.