‘Flee’: Gay Afghan’s harrowing refugee story and enduring friendship with Danish filmmaker

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Jonas Poher Rasmussen and Amin Nawabi met when they were teenagers on the train to school in rural Denmark during the early 1990s. Rasmussen was Danish, and Nawabi was a gender non-conforming refugee from Afghanistan. They became lasting friends, but over the decades, Rasmussen never knew how Nawabi came to Denmark.

Now Nawabi has told his story to Rasmussen in a new documentary called “Flee.” It’s a mix of animated re-enactments and news footage over an interview between the two. 

“When you keep a secret, you distance [yourself] from everyone around you. And he really felt a need to ... be able to connect his past and present, and start talking about what happened to him and be honest in his close relations,” Rasmussen tells Press Play.

He adds, “The film is called ‘Flee,’ and is about the physical fight from Afghanistan to Denmark, but it's also a story about a man who has had to hide parts of himself all this life.”

The director says animation allows Nawabi (a pseudonym) to be anonymous while still having a face, and enables them to be more expressive about issues of trauma and memory. 

One of Nawabi’s first memories is about a Walkman he received from his sister. Growing up in Kabul, he listened to Swedish pop songs rather than local Afghan music, which Rasmussen found surprising.

What did the filmmaker notice about Nawabi on the bus that made him want to become friends? “I grew up in a very small village with 300-400 people in it. … Amin really caught my eye because … his clothes were super fancy and people around there didn't care that much about their clothes. … He learned Danish really fast, and we started meeting up at the bus stop every morning, going to high school, and just conversation started flowing, and we became very good friends pretty fast.”

Over the course of four years, Jonas Poher Rasmussen used his skills as a radio documentary producer to conduct dozens of interviews with his longtime friend Amin Nawabi. Photo courtesy of NEON. 

War, corruption, and a cover-up

Nawabi and his family lived in Afghanistan when the civil war had been going on for years, and they fled after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 and Mujahideen (Islamic guerilla troops) took over. At the time, Nawabi was 11, and they went to Russia because it was the only place in the world that gave tourist visas, Rasmussen explains. 

“Russia was a weird place at that time because it was just after the wall came down. And there was a lot of corruption. … Russian police just pressured them for money and tried to take advantage of their debt situation.”

They hardly ever left their apartment because going out often meant being harassed or beaten by police. 

Rasmussen says they had family in Sweden who helped them financially and could hire human traffickers to help them escape. “Being in the hands of cynical human traffickers … it was a very harrowing journey, and they had different failed attempts to go to Sweden.”

He describes one scene: “They're in this truck that normally carried wood. And they're driven into this forest, and it's really cold, and they're not wearing enough clothes, so they're freezing. … They're crossing a border between Russia and Estonia, and then from Estonia, they're trying to get on a ship to go to Sweden.”

Then Nawabi came to Denmark alone in the 1990s when he was 16 years old. His smugglers instructed him to lie to everyone that his family had been slaughtered. In actuality, some of those family members remained in Russia temporarily. They later relocated all over the world, including the U.S. Nawabi’s father was actually taken before they left Kabul and was never heard from again.

The smugglers didn’t know the law and wanted to cover their own tracks, Rasmussen says. “He had to say that he came there from Afghanistan and all by himself, so the police wouldn't be able to track them back and stop their business.”

In Denmark, Nawabi was told that he was safe and could stay, which allowed him to start building a life for himself. But it’s not the same experience now. “When refugees arrive today, they’re told that yes, they can stay. But as soon as we get the chance, we're going to send you back, which is not really something you can build a life on. So people are just kind of stuck in limbo for years, where they don't know what the future is gonna look like. I think ‘Flee’ to me, it's really a story about trust, and how trusting each creates value.”

Universal — but nuanced — refugee stories

Rasmussen’s great-grandparents also had to flee across the Baltic Sea from Russia to Denmark because they were Russian Jews. 

“It's the same as the Holocaust. … It's a really universal refugee story that you are in the hands of people who can't be trusted, who just want your money. And then my grandmother, she was born in Copenhagen, [sought] asylum, but was in limbo and they got rejected. And then they had to move onto Germany, and then they had to flee again. So I think these kinds of stories are universal refugee stories and things that just happen over and over again.”

Then came the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe with residents fleeing Syria. Rasmussen says he felt the need to give a human face to the refugee story.

“All the time, refugees are just described by what they need, and not as the complex individuals we all are. … This is a refugee story told from the inside of a friendship. And to me, Amin, yes, he's a refugee, but he's so much more. I'm hoping that I can give some nuance to the refugee story.”

Amin Nawabi’s life today 

Rasmussen says Nawabi now lives with his husband and doesn’t feel fear anymore. He also reunited with his mom before she died (from natural causes) 10 years ago, and sees his other family members often, especially for weddings, birthdays, and holidays.

His family also accepts his sexuality. “I had a prejudice against how they would react to it, and Amin did so as well. … He thought they wouldn't be able to accept it. But sometimes you get surprised in a positive way.”