Klan veteran and Kurdish immigrant form unlikely alliance

Former Klansman Chris Buckley (left) shares a stage with Syrian refugee Heval Kelli in a scene from Refuge. (Photos by Tomesha Foxio)

By Richard Ades

Refuge is the story of the healing that takes place when a former Ku Klux Klan member is befriended by a Muslim refugee.

That’s the way the documentary is billed, at least, though the description is a bit misleading. For one thing, the two men don’t actually meet until late in the film, by which time much of the healing has already taken place.

The former Klan member is Chris Buckley, an Army veteran who lives in LaFayette, Ga., with his wife and two small children. Chris enlisted in the military after 9/11, and his subsequent years of overseas combat duty only added to the hatred and distrust he felt toward Muslims.

More broadly, his ongoing struggle to support his family made him susceptible to the appeal of White nationalism, which encouraged him to blame his problems on people of color, immigrants and other convenient scapegoats. Hence, Chris joined the Klan and began throwing himself into the hate group’s rituals and ideology.

By the time we meet him, however, Chris has left the Klan for reasons that aren’t immediately revealed. He claims he’s trying to put his hatred behind him, though he makes an exception in the case of the religion he blames for his many wartime injuries and for the death of a beloved Army buddy.

Meanwhile, directors Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship also introduce us to Heval Kelli, a Muslim Kurd who arrived in the U.S. after his family was forced to flee their native Syria. A cardiologist, Heval lives with his aging parents in Clarkston, a Georgia town two hours away from LaFayette by car—and light years away in terms of environment.

“Mama Amina” works to make newcomers feel at home in the multiethnic community of Clarkston, Ga.

For decades, Clarkston has accepted refugees from various parts of the world, resulting in a community that comprises a multitude of nationalities, languages and religions. All are made to feel welcome thanks to the efforts of warm-hearted residents such as 89-year-old “Mama Amina,” a tireless volunteer.

Chris and Heval eventually meet, of course, though it takes some doing on the part of others to bring it about. In particular, it takes the efforts of Melissa, Chris’s wife, who has her own reasons for hating racism and who emerges as one of the film’s real heroes.

As a record of a Chris’s conversion from a vicious bigot to someone who ends up fighting bigotry, Refuge is sometimes moving, though not quite as moving as it could be. That’s because his transformation largely takes place when the camera isn’t rolling. We see him talking about his change of heart, but we don’t see it actually happening.

But that’s a minor weakness, and besides, the documentary has plenty of other attributes. Among them are the scenes in Clarkston, where rampant displays of kindness and acceptance offer a welcome break from the divisiveness that characterizes much of modern society.

The atmosphere is so intoxicating that not even the arrival of an anti-immigrant gubernatorial candidate and his so-called “deportation bus” can spoil the mood. The candidate apparently realizes that as, after accepting a welcoming piece of baclava, he takes his leave.

If only hatred and bigotry could always be turned away that easily.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Refuge opens March 24 at select theaters and through VOD outlets.