when we first spoke to Khaled Khatib, he had just finished working on The White Helmets, a 41-minute Netflix documentary about a group of volunteer rescue workers who were helping those caught in the crossfire of Syria’s bloody civil war.
That was last September.
Now 22-year-old Khatib can call himself an Oscar-winning cinematographer.
In February, Khatib watched the Oscar ceremonies from Istanbul — where he is now based. “It was around 6 a.m. in Turkey when we found out our film had won,” he says. His cousin and fellow cinematographer Fadi Al Halabi had come over to watch with him — and promptly fallen asleep. “I shook him and said, ‘Fadi wake up, wake up!’ and then of course we celebrated,” Khatib recalls. “We were so happy.”
Khatib had been invited to attend the ceremony in Los Angeles. He was even issued a special U.S. visa. But when he got to the airport, Khatib found out that the Syrian government had canceled his passport.
That was a bummer — but it wasn’t Khatib’s biggest letdown. “To be honest sometimes I feel that there is no hope for the future because nothing has changed and no one wants to do anything to help the Syrian people,” he says.
After all, the war is still ongoing.
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Things have changed in Aleppo. In late December, the Syrian government came to a cease-fire agreement with rebel forces in the city, where Khatib lived and worked with the White Helmets.
During the final, brutal airstrikes on Aleppo, Khatib was safe in Turkey. He says it was excruciating to watch the bombardment from afar. “I lost hope, because all the world was watching the people of Aleppo suffer,” he says. “And no one did anything to prevent the evil at that time.”
He hasn’t been able to return to Aleppo now that it is controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces have previously targeted medical staff and rescue workers, including the White Helmets, who work in conflict areas.
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While most of his colleagues in the White Helmets were redeployed to other parts of Syria, Khatib is no longer on the front lines. He now works for the organization’s media relations team, commuting between Istanbul and certain parts of rebel-held Syria.
“Now I am out of the action,” he says. “And sometimes that makes me feel not so good because my colleagues are there inside Syria, still putting themselves in danger to save lives.”
But then, he says, “I remember that I am here in Turkey for the same mission.”
It also helps that he now lives much closer to his parents, who left Aleppo for Turkey three years ago after their home was destroyed in an airstrike. “And actually, we are eight siblings — six brothers and two sisters,” he says. “Three of my brothers are refugees in Germany and the rest of us are here in Turkey.”
Their main worry now is their education, Khatib says. “Like me, right now there are a lot of young Syrians feeling disappointed and confused because we don’t think we will have a chance for a good future.”
Khatib’s education stopped in 2012 — interrupted by the war when he was just completing high school. He’s not sure if or when he’ll get the chance to study again.
Someday, he hopes to head to the U.S. or U.K. to get a degree in either media studies or journalism “because I think they have the best programs in the world.”
Once he’s finished studying, in an ideal world, he’d return to Syria. “We wish for this war to stop,” he says. “We want to rebuild Syria. We can make a good life for the people. We can live in peace — if only this stops.”