FilmAid: Bringing reels to refugees


Kabara Morgan sits in Old Towns Perk Up coffee shop, fresh from a night at the movies in Tanzanias Kibondo Refugee Camp.

Standing on a dusty plain before an inflatable 12-foot by 16-foot screen amidst 4,000 refugees from across Africa, Morgan watched little girls squeal with laughter as they watched the movie Bend it Like Beckham, and for many, the first movie theyd ever seen.

Morgan, 32, is the development director of FilmAid International, a New York-based non-profit which brings movies to some of the worlds 33 million refugees. Refugees have a huge problem with mental stimulation, said Morgan, the daughter of legendary performer Ben Vereen and a resident of New York and Los Angeles. Many of these people were child soldiers with huge mental problems, so the films alleviate the stress.

FilmAid was founded by Caroline Baron, the producer of Capote, and funded by gifts from the public, including the motion picture studios and actors like Goldie Hawn and Robert DeNiro. The group works to transcend literacy and cultural barriers in East Africa with its three open-air projectors and screens based in refugee camps in Kenya and Tanzania.

Sometimes cultural barriers are broken. The group recently screened Wizard of Oz (1939) in one of the camps with refugees of the Taliban, but some of the refugees said they were offended because the munchkins had not covered their knees. We try and avoid situations like that, she said.

Most of the films are shown in English, but some are Aramaic, to cater to the large population of Somalis.

FilmAid also works with diverse groups of young adults living in the refugee camps to teach them basic camera and editing schools in an effort to help them tell their own stories through video.

The group is looking to expand its services to the 8.5 million refugees housed in camps around the world, where the average stay for a refugee is 17 years. Some of these camps are like large, contained cities where theres no free movement and you cant really get employment, she said. Electricity is shut off at 5 p.m. and youre basically a dependent of the humanitarian agencies. The conditions are really bleak.

FilmAid screens feature-length movies, documentaries and shorts to as many as 30,000 refugees at a time, and since its founding five years ago has shown movies to more than one million attendees. The filmgoers are usually very respectful, she said. The Somali Bantu warriors are about seven-feet tall so they usually stand in the back, standing for four hours at a time.  

Theres cups of water available, but no popcorn.

Watch the FilmAid trailer at