Syrian White Helmet filmmaker can’t enter the U.S. to attend the Oscars

February 26, 2017, 4:18pm

A 21-year-old Syrian cinematographer whose film has been nominated for an Academy Award won’t be at the Oscars Sunday due to unclear circumstances regarding his passport.

Khaled Khatib worked on Netflix Original “The White Helmets,” a 40-minute harrowing look at the devastation of Syria’s civil war. The film has been nominated for Best Documentary Short at the 89th annual Academy Awards, airing Sunday, Feb. 26.

Khatib was scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles Saturday for the event on a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul — he’d received a U.S. visa specifically to attend. But according to an internal Trump administration correspondence seen by the Associated Press, the Department of Homeland Security blocked his entry due to “derogatory information,” which can range from terrorist connections to passport issues.

In a statement released on Twitter Saturday, the White Helmets say the Syrian government canceled Khatib’s passport.

In a phone interview with NBC News published Sunday, however, Khatib said the U.S. government revoked his visa.

According to documents seen by the AP, Turkish officials told Khatib he’d need a passport waiver to enter the United States. DHS reportedly did not issue him one.

“A valid travel document is required for travel to the United States,” spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security Gillian Christensen, told the AP when asked about the situation.

The nominated film profiles the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of civilians who, donning white helmets, extract people from warzone rubble, making them vulnerable to airstrikes that target first responders. The 3,300 members of the White Helmets have been credited with saving 82,000 lives, according to NBC. Their work put them up for a Nobel Peace Prize this year, although they didn’t win.

Khatib, aside from carrying a camera for the film, is a White Helmet himself.

The Syrian government has accused the group of being a front for Al-Qaeda and of faking footage in the aftermath of airstrikes — accusations that the White Helmets have rebuked. In September 2016, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad told the AP: “They use different humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement certain agendas.” And they’ve been referred to by Russian President Vladimir Putin as terrorists.

In addition to temporarily banning travel to the U.S. for seven Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, Donald Trump’s executive order in January also indefinitely halted the flow of Syrian refugees into the country. Federal courts, however, have since put the brakes on the policy.

In 2016, 12,587 Syrian refugees were admitted to the U.S., a record number. Given that the conflicts in Syria show little signs of abating, just as many people could be affected in 2017 should the ban on refugees continue.

The immigration order has taken its toll on this year’s Oscars ceremony, with actors and directors boycotting the event. The nominees for Best Foreign Language Film penned a joint letter, dedicating the award to “all the people, artists, journalists and activists who are working to foster unity and understanding, and who uphold freedom of expression and human dignity — values whose protection is now more important than ever.”

Watch the trailer for The White Helmets here.