Maverick Life

FILM ANIMATION INTERVIEW

Flight for Life: A powerful statement on climate migration

Flight for Life: A powerful statement on climate migration
Majid Adin. Image: Meysam Zarghani

Majid Adin is an accomplished illustrator and 2D animator living in London. But he has a heart-rending past of being a refugee, forced to flee from his home country of Iran and endure harsh conditions after being imprisoned. Drawing from his visceral memories of adversity, he collaborated with UN Video to craft a powerful statement for COP27 in an animated story about climate migration.

Majid Adin remembers being tightly locked inside a refrigerator compartment in the back of a van.

Crammed in the cold refrigerator for 18 hours, he was unable to see in the darkness or even lift his arms. He had to endure this in order to be smuggled into the United Kingdom. This was just yet another attempt to cross the border unnoticed, after more than 20 failed attempts. 

He believed he had no chance. But this time, in 2016, it finally worked.

This was all after he was smuggled to Turkey. From there, he took a makeshift boat across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece — the boat collapsed and he almost drowned. A Greek man saved his life and he eventually arrived at the Calais Jungle (Camp de la Lande) refugee encampment in France. He was trapped at the French encampment for six months before he managed to successfully flee to the UK.

“The suffering… there is nothing like it,” Adin says. “Being forced to leave my homeland and the difficulties I faced … my heart still hurts.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: “World Refugee Day – SA leaves the displaced in the lurch as ‘global asylum fatigue’ sets in”

A long and difficult journey

Adin grew up in Mashhad, a conservative city in the northeast of Iran, in a family of Shi’ite Muslims. He describes his home as “completely dried up, where people are fighting for their water”.

Iran’s cheap oil has “sucked away” much of the land’s water, and the climate crisis has caused and will continue to cause many wars. Iranians protest about the country’s dwindling resources, about the regime, about rigged elections and about the lack of human rights, he explains. 

He remembers protests in 2009 that lasted for days and “the news didn’t cover them” because the Iranian government shut off the internet, and social media and cameras were “less powerful” at the time. Countless people were arrested or murdered in the streets, he adds.

Adin says he wishes more people around the world knew about Iran’s realities.

Adin’s grandparents also faced climate migration — they dedicated their lives to agriculture in a small village but had to relocate to a big city in order to find other work, he says. His grandfather “loved trees like they were his children” and had to watch his garden and his farm be destroyed.

“I saw the pain of climate migrants in my grandparents… I know how this happens and how it feels – it changes everything.”

Adin has always been imaginative and creative, an artist, a painter. He obtained his university degree in art in Zahedan, close to Lake Hamoun.

“There is absolute scarcity there, and the value of the water is so important,” he says. “That historical lake that has been around for a thousand years is now dry because humans have changed the land and the water stopped coming through from the rivers.”

Majid Adin

Majid Adin. Image: Meysam Zarghani

But Adin’s need for escape from Iran all started in 2010, when he began a blog to share his artwork in the form of political cartoons. The cartoons caught the attention of Iran’s conservative regime because they “offended the religious authorities” (of Shia Islam). The police came to his house, confiscated his computer and destroyed his art. Then, he served jail time for five months, surviving dismal and harsh conditions with other political prisoners. 

“They were innocent cartoons,” Adin emphasises, describing one of them as Joseph from the Bible being in a fashion shoot.

When he was released from prison, his passport was taken and he was unable to find work. As he was awaiting his trial, he decided to flee the country when he had the chance. He knew he could have been sentenced to many more years in prison.

Luckily, when he eventually made it to the UK, he received asylum in Derby. Gaining his citizenship and learning English gradually, he slowly rebuilt his life in West Hampstead and started creating artwork again. Art was the only thing he wanted to do, he says. 

“Coming to a new country and adapting was not easy. Making life again in a new place where you don’t know anybody, while missing your homeland, your family and your culture… I understand that suffering.”

Adin decided to enter a music video competition called “The Cut”, in which the winner would be selected to animate an official music video for Elton John. Winning the competition with a powerful animation drawing from his experiences of loneliness of being a refugee, Adin created the music video for “Rocket Man”, which currently has over 125 million views.

This accomplishment was how the United Nations found him. 

Achieving a dream, making a difference

Francis Mead, a television and multimedia producer for the United Nations in the UN Video team, was moved by Adin’s music video animation.

“Majid succeeded in increasing my empathy for migrants, and he made it very real for me,” Mead says. “The animation brings it home and makes the viewer understand it a bit more.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 20 million people every year are being forced to leave their homes because of extreme weather events due to the climate crisis, including abnormally heavy rainfall, prolonged droughts, desertification, environmental degradation, sea-level rise and cyclones.

One of the main focuses of the United Nations is to “mobilise opinion, increase public awareness and galvanise people and governments to take action”, Mead says. 

Read more in Our Burning Planet: “COP27 makes history with agreement on ‘loss and damage’ fund for vulnerable countries impacted by climate change”

Through his work at UN Video, Mead aims to “tell compelling stories about people’s lives” to increase the “drip of awareness” about current global issues, such as climate migration. 

“People respond to stories about people and characters they can identify with or empathise with,” he says. “We connect with people’s emotions to help them understand.”

Mead “put two-and-two together and tracked down Adin” in September 2021 to ask his advice, but Adin agreed to create the animation for a UN Video project about climate migration to be featured in COP27.

Read more in Our Burning Planet: “Global climate mobility planning at COP27 could turn tide on climate-linked migration fallacies” 

In the creative process of the project, Mead came up with the storyline of the video and Adin crafted the “poetic” animation of the video, called “Flight for Life: A Climate Migrant Story”.

Majid Adin

Majid Adin working on an animation. Image: Meysam Zarghani

Majid Adin

Majid Adin working on an animation. Image: Meysam Zarghani

In the animation, a man is forced to leave his wife and child behind to search for help and a new home for his family elsewhere, because their land can no longer sustain them. He ventures into the ocean on a makeshift boat, but gets thrown overboard in a hurricane. He finds a bird trapped in plastic and frees it, soaring into the sky on the back of it – he sees wildfires ravaging the land beneath him.

Adin says he incorporated his own memories of being a refugee into the animation.

“We used fantasy and a combination of elements about the climate crisis to show that people have a desperate hope of finding a new home elsewhere,” says Mead. 

“People do not leave by choice… they leave because things are impossible. The man in the video flies off away from home, unsure of where he is going, fighting for survival.”

Oftentimes, a man leaves his family behind because women and children are unable to make the journey. The man will go ahead to search for a new location or a job to send money back to his wife, he adds.

Adin says working on this project was “a dream” for him.

“I was so happy to work with the United Nations because this organisation can solve some of the biggest problems of our world that I experienced myself… I want more people to know about climate migration and the experiences of refugees.”

Adin describes that animation is a powerful form of art because it allows the artist to have the “freedom and independence to create anything” and there are “no limits to the imagination.” 

Mead agrees that animation has a “raw, emotional” effect, and the fact that no language or text is required makes it “universally impactful”.

“This animation is a message for the future,” Adin adds. “I hope it makes people pay more attention.” DM/ML

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  • Alastair Stalker says:

    This is an inspirational story and shows what determined educated migrants can achieve. However, one thing that no one talks about, and which is one of the main causes of this migrant crisis is population growth. The Iranian government has put in place policies to encourage people to have more children. In 60 years, Iran’s population has grown from 23Mill to 86 Mill, which the country cannot possibly support. Massive environmental degradation has taken place which is another reason that the rural population can no longer subsist. Iran is not the only country with this problem. Bangladesh. Pakistan, Indonesia and Afghanistan also have had huge population increases. Until governments in these countries enact policies to limit population growth, the problem is only going to get worse, exacerbated of course by climate change.

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