Lena Headey Wants to Debunk Myths About the Refugee Crisis
BY OLIVIA ARMSTRONG
Lena Headey, known to Game of Thrones fans as the fearless Cersei Lannister, has another passion: the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The organization assists those who have been forced out of their home countries because of war and famine and helps get their lives back on track by establishing a long-term path for recovery. Headey, who was named an official voice of the organization, traveled to Greece (along with Game of Thrones co-stars Maisie Williams and Liam Cunningham) in 2016 and Germany earlier this year on behalf of the IRC to see the situation firsthand. Here, she discusses her experience visiting those displaced and shares insight as to how we, as global citizens, can help.
HBO: Why did you want to join IRC on the ground?
Lena Headey: When I saw photos of children dying after making such perilous journeys, I couldn’t imagine taking that kind of risk. What these people have to go through — surviving what’s happened to their home, escaping to somewhere new, then having to start over while being painted with labels like “terrorist” and other horrendous falsities, I said to [Game of Thrones’ publicist] Mara Mikialian, “Can we do something?”
It was around the time of the Golden Globes and it felt ridiculous to have such a big platform and not say anything. Mara said, “Funnily enough, HBO is partnering with the IRC to raise money for this campaign.” That’s how I got involved.
In 2016, we made a trip to several refugee camps in Greece where we saw the enormity of it — that our world is never going to be what it once was. Globally we’ve changed and everyone needs a helping hand to establish how we move forward.
HBO: What’s important to you about being there with those who have been displaced?
Lena Headey: As human beings, we get really complacent if we’re not involved in tangible experiences. It’s easy — for me as well — to say, “Oh, these poor people.” Greece changed the way I felt about it. There’s no ignoring it. My role is to be there, listen and try to understand how we move forward in our global society. The people I meet want to contribute and be part of their new existence. How can we ignore that? As mothers and as people who live in societies that place value on compassion and universal understanding, we’ve all got something to give.
HBO: Can you share some of their stories? What have they taught you?
Lena Headey: I met Marwa, who I originally met in Greece when she was trying to get back to her husband Aiman in Germany. Aiman was alone, trying to find a way to get Marwa and the kids to join him. He already had asylum, and, at the time there was a program called the Family Reunification Program — which has been scrapped there — but it allowed people who had been heavily vetted to apply for their family to join them.
When I first met Marwa, she hadn’t seen Aiman for nearly two years. And two years later, I got to meet them in their apartment in Germany. Not everything is rosy; they still have a long way to go. There’s a lot of isolation and judgment. Their children can’t make friends because the children in their class are unkind towards them. There’s a long way to go in taking away fear and replacing it with social progress.
HBO: Is there anyone you’ve met who has been building these bridges?
Lena Headey: Werner, a 73-year-old German man, came to Aiman’s and Marwa’s apartment with his wife when we were there. He’s this giant of a man and a really beautiful humanitarian. We spoke to Aiman about Syria, about his anger at his own people and how he does want to go home. He feels guilty about being safe and fed when his family and friends are dying.
Then he sat next to Werner. They held hands and Aiman kind of softened. There was a visceral love in the room and Werner said, “I don’t need to speak the same language, I speak the language of the heart and that’s all we need to move forward.” Aiman and Marwa named their new baby after Werner. Aiman said to his friend, “I don’t know what I can give you, but he’ll live on through you.”
HBO: What’s the one thing people should know about the refugee crisis? What are some common misconceptions?
Lena Headey: The fact is, there’s no common ground. I met this incredible teacher in Germany who was an English instructor back in Syria and is now learning German. She told me she’s excited to learn a new way to teach and become part of the educational system. Then I met German teachers who speak no Arabic, who have children [in their classes] who have suffered massive trauma and can’t learn because they don’t know the language. And trauma can shut them off, emotionally.
A common misconception is people are leaving their countries because they want to come to Europe and sit on their ass. That’s not true. They’re like me and you: They had careers and social lives, and that’s all been taken from them. They don’t want to leave home, but they have no choice because they want to raise their children in safety.
HBO: Where do you think these misconceptions stem from?
Lena Headey: They come from our countries’ own socio-economic problems. Our own poverty, unemployment and, yes, lack of education. That everyone coming over is a terrorist and is here to cause trouble — when that’s just not the truth. Every single person I’ve met is desperate to contribute and find a job.
HBO: As an official voice for IRC, what are your goals for the organization for 2018?
Lena Headey: When I first met Marwa I told her, “I won’t stop talking about you and being a voice for you.” It means being brave and speaking out when people don’t want to hear it. Like anything worth a fight, it means standing up for what you believe. I’m trying to change minds. If I can ask someone to sit down and hear me out, it’s worth it. I’ve talked to the great women I’ve met about what our next trip could be and what we could do to influence people in a positive way — without ramming it down people’s necks, but genuinely showing truth. I want to take those who are angry and set in their opinions to meet refugees to see if change can happen.
There’s a lot more work to do. There’s a huge camp in the middle of Berlin full of children and single mothers who aren’t living a great life. Things need to move faster. The IRC has become a presence in Germany, so hopefully, there will be more immediate work done when people arrive.
HBO: If someone is interested in IRC, how would you recommend they get involved?
Lena Headey: Check them out. Check out the work they do, not just in Europe but across the globe. There’s also the chance to do your own individual work: speaking to people with strong opposing opinions or saying a simple “hello” to someone who is going through this. I think people just need a bit of humanity and warmth. That can change someone’s day and mindset in that moment — and it’s a really powerful thing. Simple acts of kindness can create big waves of change. It’s exciting and it costs nothing.
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