Refugees in “Limbo”: Reflections on Ben Sharrock’s film and World Refugee Day
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot
June 17, 2021
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 80 million people are currently displaced by conflict, persecution, and other threats worldwide. Over 26 million of these are refugees. UNHCR provides a helpful definition of refugees: “Under international law, a refugee is someone who is forced to flee their home country to escape persecution or a serious threat to their life, physical integrity, or freedom. This may be linked to their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or membership of a social group. But also, to situations of conflict, violence, or public disorder. Refugees are protected by international law and cannot be sent back home if their life or freedom would be at risk.”
Annually, the United Nations designates June 20 as World Refugee Day. The UN encourages member countries to highlight the situation of refugees, advocate for their rights and needs, and celebrate the contributions refugees make to their new locations once resettled.
Among American Baptists, we celebrate a long history of refugee resettlement and maintain key partnerships with humanitarian and ecumenical partners to address refugee issues. In this time of tumult within Myanmar/Burma, American Baptists have continued their ongoing advocacy and support of the Burma Diaspora in the US, while also raising their voice against the military currently in control of Burma’s government.
The recent Ben Sharrock film “Limbo” invites its audience into the deep uncertainties of a refugee. The film focuses on Omar, a Syrian refugee who has made it as far as England and now awaits word on his asylum claim from the British government. He lives in a sparsely furnished house with three other refugees (an Afghan and two Africans) on a remote island off the coast of Scotland. The provision of food, warmth and shelter meets their basic needs; however, the four men feel the great anxiety of displacement and the fear of deportation back to the violence and political unrest back in their “home” countries.
The Afghan refugee Farhad orients Omar to the long and uncertain wait ahead of him. Already “thirty-two months and five days” into his own protracted asylum claim, Farhad discourages Omar from trying to call the government about his claim. At best, a letter might come from the UK government, but mostly long days and weeks might pass, save a sudden appearance of authorities to ensure a deportation order given is enacted swiftly.
The island itself is cold, windy, and remote, adding to the misery of persons unaccustomed to the climate along with the loneliness. The residents of the sparsely populated island usually give a wide berth to the men, save a few who offer charity bins full of clothing and other items. The refugees also have an opportunity to learn some English literacy and Western cultural values from two well-meaning, but inept instructors. In one class, the teachers are teaching grammar, yet their examples are dreadful. To finish a sentence (and learn about the past tense in English), they offer such lines as “I used to…” and then give the example: “ride an elephant to work every day.”
Annually, the United Nations designates June 20 as World Refugee Day. The UN encourages member countries to highlight the situation of refugees, advocate for their rights and needs, and celebrate the contributions refugees make to their new locations once resettled. The recent Ben Sharrock film “Limbo” invites its audience into the deep uncertainties of a refugee.
In this same class session, one refugee rises to model this grammar lesson. He pours out a few sorrowful sentences about “what he used to….” back home. The instructors immediately praise his mastery of the concept, but they miss entirely the deep anguish that their “I used to…” exercise is stirring up within their students, all displaced and wrenched away from what they knew, loved and took for granted as their “normal life.”
Everywhere Omar goes, he carries a bulky instrument case. It is cumbersome and often a struggle to hold onto when on the back of a motorcycle or out on a boat in the rough sea, yet Omar keeps it close. Inside is an oud, a stringed instrument that once belonged to his grandfather. Back home, Omar is a rising performer, yet now in Scotland, the oud remains in its case, and Omar can barely summon the wherewithal to open it up to look at, let alone play in public as he once did.
Farhad notices this about Omar and encourages him to open the case up and play once more. Farhad tells an Afghan story of the bird who once stopped singing and then died of sadness. The film reflects that heaviness as Omar and the other refugees have found themselves burdened by the grief, loss, and alienation that comes with being wrenched away from loved ones, land, and the very identity that shapes them.
Stared at by many of the island residents or given wide berth by others, the refugees spend day after day just existing at best and at worst, their spirits withering in this uncertainty. Will Omar open the case, let alone play his oud for others? Will the next knock at the door be the postman with a letter of asylum being granted or the authorities with deportation ahead?
Watching “Limbo” is an experience for the viewer. We desperately want a “Hollywood ending” for these refugees, yet the resolution to each man’s situation is a schooling for the optimist and the blithe viewer about the incredibly difficult situation refugees find themselves in, provided they can safely make it to another country’s borders and gain even temporary status, let alone asylum.
In the United States, we are working through a long history with immigrants and refugees that is mixed at best when it comes to the questions of following our better angels. Spending this time watching the film about Omar and his fellow refugees will school us in empathy and a sense of humanity we might otherwise neglect through policies and ideologies. Better yet, “Limbo” will prompt viewers to go and be with the real-life resettled peoples in our communities more sensitively and speak up more readily for those who linger hopefully at our borders.
The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.