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Clarkston, GA has been the most diverse square mile in America, and that was the original focus of REFUGE, the documentary Din Blankenship and Erin Levin Bernhardt had planned to make. For several decades it has been where refugees from all over the world have been settled by the U.S. government. How so many cultures have thrived together, welcomed by their American neighbors, is a lesson in what can be achieved by people of good will.
The focus shifted when one of their subjects, Dr. Heval Kelli, got a call from Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist extremism interventionist. He asked Kelli to start texting with Chris Buckley, a KKK leader whose wife wanted him to leave hate behind. Kelli, a Syrian Kurd who fled Iraq represented what Buckley most hated from his tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In REFUGE, we see them reach out to one another tentatively at first, and eventually create a bond of friendship that leads Buckley away from the beliefs he espoused to fervently, and that shows Kelli a side of America he hadn’t really understood before.
When I spoke with Blankenship on March 17, 2023, I wanted to know what it was like for her and Bernhardt to make a documentary when they could not be sure how it would turn out, but I started with something that the film brought home to me that made me especially glad to have seen their eye-opening and hopeful documentary about what they term radical acceptance.