In The Unreturned, director Nathan Fisher takes us to Syria and Jordan, two countries that have absorbed the brunt of Iraqi refugees generated by the U.S. occupation of their home country. From these neighboring countries, we hear directly from Iraqis themselves about what life was like in Iraq, both before and after the U.S.-led invasion, why they fled, why the choose not to return, and what life is like as a refugee.

The numbers that reveal the scope of this crisis are staggering. Currently, according to recent UN figures, more than 4.8 million Iraqis remain displaced from their homes, roughly half of those persons internally displaced within Iraq. This number has changed little over the last three years.

Having covered the Iraq War since 2003, much of my time in 2006 and 2007 was spent in Syria and Jordan doing exactly what Fisher has done in “The Unreturned”: work to show people in the U.S. the Iraqi face of the occupation that is largely ignored in U.S. mainstream media.

The Unreturned, which screens Friday at 2pm at the Crowley Theater, is a critically important film for every citizen of the U.S. We all must see it to understand fully the effects abroad of the policies of the U.S. government, as well as to understand better the reality of the situation in Iraq today, more than seven years into what is sure to be an “enduring” occupation.

Iraqis now comprise a little over 8% of the population of Syria, a small, impoverished country, and UNHCR estimates that barely 9 percent of the displaced have returned to Iraq. According to UN authorities that appear in “The Unreturned,” the UN budget and programs available to assist the massive numbers of Iraqi refugees are only enough to “scratch the surface” of the problem.

Iraqi refugees are not allowed to work, given their refugee status; thus most struggle with poverty, insecurity, poor housing conditions, threats of violence, and the myriad indignities that one faces as a refugee, despite many of them holding advanced degrees and having run successful businesses back in Iraq.

This film humanizes Iraqis, and lets them tell the viewer of the realities of their lives. Fisher follows five Iraqis to display the ongoing plight of Iraqis who suffer from the occupation of their country, even when they’ve escaped with their lives. “During Saddam regime it was terrible,” Najlaa, a Christian Iraqi, says in the film, “[The] life situation was, nobody can bear it. And after Saddam, things [are] getting worse. Now we are saying ‘During Saddam, things are better than now.’ And this is a disaster, because during Saddam there are no human rights at all. And it [was] better than now. So you can imagine what is going on now.”

Abu Talat, a 58-year-old father of four, was my primary interpreter during eight of my months in Iraq. He finally gave up hope of remaining in his home in Baghdad, took his family, and like more than a million other Iraqis, fled to Syria. One of the luckier refugees, he had enough savings to rent a humble two-room apartment in Damascus.

He had always been, and remains, a proud man. Having served in the Iraqi Army until 1990, he holds military traits such as dignity, honesty, and honor in the highest regard.

Upon my arrival in Syria, he invited me to his home to share dinner with his family. After the meal, while we were drinking strong tea, he asked his daughter to show me the certificate from the UNHCR which proves that they are officially refugees. He handed me the paper and watched me as I read it.

The document lists him as the head of the family. A black-and-white photo of him is at the top of the page, and the names and ages of his family members at the bottom. Just above them is the following text:

“This is to certify that the above named person has been recognized as a refugee by the United Nations by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees pursuant to its extended mandate. As a refugee, (he/she) is a person of concern to the office of the United High Commissioner for Refugees, and should, in particular, be protected from forcible return to a country where (he/she) would face threats to his or her life or freedom. Any assistance accorded to above/named individual would be most appreciated.”

I glanced at him, not knowing what to say, then handed the paper back. He looked it over himself, as if in disbelief, then let his gaze focus on nothing in particular, while his chest heaved as he visibly struggled to master the urge to weep. Finally, he said to no one in particular, “I am now a refugee.”

– Dahr Jamail, Big Bend Sentinel, May 6, 2010