Review: ‘Refuge’ (2023), starring Chris Buckley and Heval Kelli

March 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Chris Buckley and Heval Kelli in “Refuge” (Photo by Tomesha Faxio/Shout! Studios)

“Refuge” (2023)

Directed by Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship

Some language in Arabic and Kurdish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in Clarkston, Georgia, the documentary film “Refuge” features a racially diverse group of people (Asian, white and African American) who are working-class and middle-class residents of Clarkston and nearby cities.

Culture Clash: A former Ku Klux Klansman and Muslim doctor of Syrian Kurd heritage become friends in Clarkston, a city that has a large population of immigrants from Asia and Africa.

Culture Audience: “Refuge” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in documentaries with frank discussions about racism and how former racists can be redeemed.

Amina Osman in “Refuge” (Photo by Tomesha Faxio/Shout! Studios)

“Refuge” is an inspiring story of how a community can heal from hate and how it’s never too late for people who’ve been terrible bigots to genuinely seek redemption. This documentary is centered in Clarkston, Georgia, but its life lessons are universal. The movie doesn’t shy away from difficult and uncomfortable conversations about racism. “Refuge” had its world premiere at DOC NYC in 2021.

Directed by Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship, “Refuge” mostly follows the story of the friendship between a former Ku Klux Klansman and U.S. Army veteran named Chris Buckley and a Muslim doctor of Syrian Kurd heritage named Heval Kelli. At the time that this documentary was filmed Buckley lived in Lafayette, Georgia, but he visits Clarkston often, since Kelli lives in racially diverse Clarkston, and Buckley has befriended many people in the Clarkston community.

In the documentary, Kelli describes Clarkston as having so many refugees from other countries, “It looks like a United Nations refugee camp.” It’s exactly the type of place that Buckley would’ve hated when he was a hardcore racist. Buckley was in the U.S. Army for 13 years, where he fought in the war in Afghanistan, which he says added fuel to his already existing hatred of Muslims and people who aren’t white. He was motivated to enlist in the Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Buckley says of his war experiences: “Every injury I sustained was by a Muslim.” he watched one of his best friend die in front of him. Buckley says that all he could think at the time was, “I hate the people who did this. All I know is that they’re Muslims.”

After getting out of the Army, Buckley became a leader in the Ku Klux Klan (one of the oldest white supremacist hate groups in the U.S.), which ordered him to get KKK tattoos. Buckley explains, “When I took over for the [KKK] head of security for the state of Georgia, they [KKK officials] said, ‘Look, you need to brand yourself.'”

Like many people who join hate groups, Buckley says he came from an abusive background. His alcoholic father used to beat him, and he was raised primarily by his grandmother. Buckley has also struggled with drug abuse, which is also a common trait of people who join hate groups.

Later in the documentary, Buckley reveals that what set him on a path to drug addiction was after her broke his back in a car accident. He was discharged from the military and got addicted to painkillers. “Opiates led to crystal meth,” he says. “In retrospect, I was alienating everyone who cared about me and was just ruining my life.”

What turned Buckley’s life around? He says that after we was arrested on drug charges, he went to court-ordered rehab. And he became a more devoted family man. His wife Melissa Buckley and their two children—son C.J. Buckley and daughter Miera Buckley—are also featured in the documentary. However, Melissa said the last straw for her was when Chris joined the KKK.

Through research on the Internet, Melissa found Arno Michaelis of the Forgiveness Project, a foundation devoted to helping people get out of hate groups and fostering healing relationships in communities that have been harmed by hate. Michaelis, who says he has been an ex-white supremacist since 1994, also describes himself as an extremist interventionist. He helped stage an intervention on Chris and continues to be in contact with the Buckley family.

Chris says about his current life as a former racist who has gotten clean and sober: “I’m the byproduct of someone’s act of kindness. I was undeserving of that. It set off a series of changes in my entire life.” Heval adds, “Chris is a reflection of the forgotten America.”

Chris’ military background has spilled over into how he raises his children. Chris says he taught his kids how to have tactical survival skills in the woods. But something he regrets doing now is taking his son C.J. to KKK meetings. Chris and his wife Melissa are teaching their children that Chris’ involvement in the KKK was a terrible mistake.

As for Kelli, he immigrated to the U.S. from Syria when he was 12 years old in September 2001, which was one of the worst months to be a Muslim in the United States. But even with anti-Muslim hate in America reaching new heights after the 9/11 terrorists attacks, Kelli says that there were many other Americans who proved that not all Americans are racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic.

Kelli remembers when he was 18 years old, “Southern Christians came knocking on our door. They came to welcome us to America. I knew then there was something special about this country.” Kelli had his own troubled history with his father. Heval Kelli’s mother Saaida Kelli describes Heval’s father as a lawyer who lived with depression.”

“Refuge” has footage of Chris and Heval doing speaking appearances together to talk about their friendship, as proof that it’s possible for bigots to stop the hate inside of themselves and get to know the types of people they used to hate. The documentary also takes a broader look at how Clarkston is an example of the changing demographics of the United States, a country that has had growing population of people of color.

The white supremacists who hate these changing demographics often like to ignore historical facts, such as the genocide of Native Americans, who lived on the land centuries before white colonialists invaded and took over the land. And most people in the U.S. who aren’t Native Americans can trace their ancestries back to people who immigrated to the United States. The city of Clarkston is a reminder that the United States is a country of immigrants from all over the world, so it’s fallacy to believe that only one race or one ethnicity should be superior to everyone else.

Ted Terry, who was mayor of Clarkston from 2014 to 2020, says in the documentary that he’s proud of Clarkston being so welcoming of immigrants, particularly refugees: “Less than one percent of refugees get invited to settle in one of the 17 countries in the developed world. It’s like winning the lottery.”

New American Pathways resettlement manager Safia Jama says, “An immigrant chooses to come here, but you never choose to be a refugee.” One of the more memorable Clarkston residents in the documentary is Amina Osman, a Somalian immigrant who was in her 90s at the time she was filmed for “Refuge.” She has the nicknames Ambassador of Clarkston, Queen of Clarkston and Mama Amina. “I like to be the mama of everyone,” she quips.

Also interviewed in the documentary are Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Bet Haverim in Atlanta and Pastor Crispin Ilombe Wilondja of Good Samaritan Lutheran Ministry at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia. They talk about the horrific mosque shootings that happened in New Zealand in 2019. The “Refuge” filmmakers made a misstep by not having a Muslim clergyperson as part of this discussion, since so much of the documentary is about battling against anti-Muslim bigotry.

With a total running time of 80 minutes, “Refuge” tells its story clearly and concisely without feeling too rushed. Viewers will get a vibrant look at the multiculturalism that makes Clarkston a reflection of what so many other communities in America are or will become. And the message of “Refuge” is obvious: Bigots who want to go back to the shameful era when racial segregation in America was legal, or think that people should be persecuted for their religious beliefs, will continue to be in miserable denial. “Refuge” shows that those who have lives of racial tolerance (through actions, not just words) are more likely to have a healthier and happier outlook on life and are more likely to make positive impacts in their communities.

Shout! Studios released “Refuge” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 24, 2023.

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