02 Nov On the Bride’s Side
The Italians, the refugees and the fake wedding party – the innovative plot to help Syrians reach Sweden.
Escaping Syria’s conflict has provoked thousands to flee, and hundreds of thousands of refugees are seeking asylum in Europe.
When a poet and journalist meet five Palestinians and Syrians in Milan who entered Europe via the Italian island of Lampedusa after fleeing the war in Syria, they decide to help them complete their journey to Sweden – and hopefully avoid getting themselves arrested as traffickers – by faking a wedding party.
With a Palestinian friend dressed up as the bride and a dozen or so Italian and Syrian friends as wedding ‘guests’, they race across the face of Europe on a four-day journey of 3,000 kilometres.
This emotionally-charged expedition not only brings out stories but also the emotional expressions of hopes and dreams of the five Palestinians and Syrians and their rather special traffickers.
It also reveals an unknown side of Europe – a transnational, supportive and irreverent Europe that ridicules the laws and restrictions of the so-called ‘Fortress Europe’ in a kind of farcical masquerade.
|‘On the Bride Side’ documents an unusual plan to help refugees reach Sweden [Marco Garofalo / Al Jazeera]|
By Gabriele del Grande
It was September 2013 and I had just reached Aleppo, hosted by four activists in the Ashrafiya quarter. The voice of the Lebanese singer, Fairuz, booming from the speakers of an old computer, smothered the sound of bomb explosions and bullets shot from the other side of town by a sniper. The gunman aimed at us each time we tried to look out the windows.
The frontline had moved to our house. We were helpless. Loud music was our only shield, helping us not to hear the war and not to see the death. We used to sing, dance, tell jokes and make fun of each other. We could hear the bombs in the background smothered by our music.
We laughed hysterically, ready for the worst. Then, a young boy knocked on our door. He was holding a wedding dress. We looked at him in astonishment. He had a serious expression and as we let him in, he went to the kitchen and came back holding a butcher’s knife. He started to cut the dress into thin strips. Then he gave one strip to each of us and told us to tie it tightly around our heads and follow him.
Although he was no older than 12, and we had no idea who he was, we decided to trust him. Thus, with our heads bandaged in white we set out into the night. The entire area had been left without electricity. We were moving through dark alleys, sliding our palms along the walls to guide us. We could see the stars and the red anti-aircraft lights in the sky.
Once on the main road, we plucked up courage, took a deep breath and ran, without ever looking back. It took us all our strength to push our bodies beyond the sound of bullets whistling above our heads. The next day, I understood: white was the signal for the Free Syrian Army’s snipers. Realising that a wedding dress had saved my life really made me smile.
I decided to keep that strip of white fabric. Once I was back home in Milan I put it in a drawer, together with some other travel souvenirs collected from around the world. I almost forgot about it, until war knocked on my door again and another wedding dress saved us once more.
|Filmmaker Gabriele will never forget one night in September 2013, when a wedding dress saved him and his friends for the first time [Witness/Al Jazeera]|
Everything happened by chance, no more than a month after my return from Syria. I was with two close friends from Damascus who now live in Milan; Khaled Soliman al-Nassiry and Tareq al-Jabr. We had planned to meet at the train station in Milan and were looking for a cafe when a man in his thirties approached us.
He had a backpack on his shoulders and the look of a newcomer.
“Do you know where the next train to Sweden leaves from?” he asked in Arabic. We laughed. There were no trains leaving for Sweden, so we offered him a coffee. Three hours later we were still sitting, talking around a table full of empty cups and cigarette ends in the ashtray.
His name was Abdallah and he was a Syrian Palestinian from Yarmouk, in Damascus. He had fled Syria during the war, while he was still an English literature student at the University of Latakya. He had arrived in Italy two weeks earlier, on October 11, and had miraculously survived a shipwreck in which 250 people had died. We took him to a reception centre in Milan. We left him there, but his story followed us home.
It was not the first time. We had welcomed many of Khaled Soliman al-Nassiry’s friends into our homes as they fled the war in Syria. They usually stayed a couple of days, just enough time to find someone who could smuggle them to Sweden, where they already had family, friends or just a community of fellow countrymen. Each time, long after they had left, their stories about the war would resonate in our heads, until we decided we had to do something.
The idea surfaced while we were having dinner at our friend Antonio Augugliaro’s house, who is a film director and editor. We were talking about Abdallah’s story, about smuggling Syrian refugees in Milan and border controls. Then I suddenly came out with it; “You know who the border guards would never stop? A wedding party! The police would never check a bride’s documents!”
|A Palestinian friend dressed up as the bride and a dozen or so Italians and Syrians joined as ‘wedding guests’ to help war refugees reach Sweden [Marco Garofalo /Al Jazeera]|
It all started as a joke, until a couple of days later, Antonio Augugliaro called me and Khaled. He told us that he had thought about it and that we had to do it. When I asked him what he was talking about, he replied; “Come on! I’m talking about the bride of course!”
I could hardly believe it. Were we actually going to fake a wedding party to avoid border controls and take a group of war refugees to Sweden to seek asylum?
Khaled, Antonio and I met for a coffee and looked straight into each other’s eyes. We had to understand if we were really going to do this. We felt the pressure of a choice that could change our lives forever. In fact, helping these people to leave Italy meant risking arrest for conspiring to assist illegal immigration. The crime carried a prison term of 15 years. It was deadly serious, yet the dream of the bride was stronger than any second thoughts we had.
Having seen war with my own eyes, and remembering the deaths off Lampedusa in October 2013, we felt we were doing the right thing. This firm belief in the plan made us forget the risks we were running. Adrenaline did the rest. In just two weeks we organised a fake wedding party, but also a film production to turn the entire adventure into a documentary.
In the meantime, we also took care of the logistics: renting four cars and a van, deciding the itinerary, looking for hospitality during our journey. And we scoured Milan for a shop where we could buy a wedding dress and elegant clothes, as well as a hairdresser for the five Palestinians and Syrians that we had involved in our plan.
The first person we invited was Abdallah. He was going to be the groom. Then we talked to Alaa and his son Manar, a child rapper who had won our hearts with his music. Finally, Ahmed and Mona, a couple of old opponents belonging to the Syrian left. As for the bride, we called a Palestinian Syrian friend of ours, Tasnim, who agreed with enthusiasm. Then I sent a top secret email to 10 trusted Italian friends who would help make this masquerade more credible in the event of border controls.
|The bride and the groom passing the border between Italy and France [Marco Garofalo /Al Jazeera]|
The night before leaving, as I browsed through my wardrobe looking for a smart shirt, I found the white bandage from Aleppo. I tried it on my forehead, in front of the mirror. It still suited me. For a moment I was filled with memories.
I saw Abu Adel, who had been killed in those days, then Bushkin, who had recently got engaged but was still going around Aleppo with his camera, and Abu Mohammad, who was supposed to start a radio station, and instead ended up in hospital, wounded by a mortar.
Then I opened my eyes and felt we could make it. The wedding dress would protect us again. I folded the white bandage and put it in my pocket before leaving the house.
A few hours later, I met my travel companions. There were 23 of us altogether; Italians, Palestinians and Syrians. Everybody was dressed in proper wedding clothes – young men and women from both shores of the Mediterranean, ready to risk everything, together, to prove that sometimes dreams come true, and that hope still exists.
|Young men and women from both shores of the Mediterranean were ready to risk everything to prove that sometimes dreams come true, and that hope still exists [Marco Garofalo /Al Jazeera]|
The day we left, we had no idea that our adventure could touch so many people around the world. We discovered it as soon as we returned to Milan and we launched a crowdfunding campaign to finance the documentary; 2,617 supporters from 37 different countries had donated 100,000 euro.
It was the biggest ever crowdfunding campaign in the history of Italian and Palestinian cinema. Thanks to their support, we were able to finish the post-production in time to enter the 71 Venice International Film Festival.
The film was selected and won three special awards of the jury. One year later, it had been given a theatrical release in Italy and was featured in many of the biggest international documentary festivals around the world (IDFA, HotDocs and DocEdge, to name a few). It has also been screened in 36 countries worldwide, broadcasted on Italy’s SKY channel, and now on Al Jazeera English.
It is amazing how the crazy idea of a bunch of romantics like us could win the hearts of so many people around the world. We wanted to prove that the Mediterranean is not just a cemetery, but that it can also be the sea that unites us. On The Bride’s Sidedoes just that.
|One of the graffitis on the walls of the abandoned house nearby the Death Pass [Marco Garofalo / Al Jazeera]|