Stories about how philanthropy has made an impact on the art and community at CalArts.

Khadim Dai: A Refugee’s Tale

By 2017, the year that Khadim Dai turned 21, he had already lived a very full life: fleeing Afghanistan and persecution from the Taliban with his family, living with daily targeted killings as a refugee in Pakistan, and joining the Pakistan national karate team after becoming a top contender in the sport. After Dai’s school was bombed by terrorists, he fled again, this time for Indonesia, where he started a school for refugees and took up filmmaking—all before he enrolled at CalArts as an undergraduate film student.

Sitting in the grass on Clark’s Field on a 90-degree day at CalArts, Dai said that his greatest joy now is simple: to study and just contemplate life without worrying about the threat of violence. “I came to CalArts to think and reflect and take time to write my own stories,” Dai says, adding that he relishes the opportunity to focus on his art without having the fear of war and conflict surrounding him.

A member of the Hazara ethnic group, Dai was only two years old and living with his family in a mountainous region of Afghanistan when their village was overrun by the Taliban. Like many other Afghan refugees, his family fled to Quetta, located in the north of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. He and his parents and siblings scraped by in a refugee settlement with many other Hazara families. As he grew up, Dai attended refugee schools sporadically, where he said he learned to read and write but little more. Most of his knowledge, he says, came from the streets. As he got older, he worked in a bakery and peddled items, saving his money so that he could buy a weekly soft drink in a cafe that featured a television, a luxury that his family could not afford.

Every Friday, he and his friends would watch American war movies while sipping their drinks very slowly so they wouldn’t get kicked out of the cafe. When the owner turned off the set to get rid of them, Dai would spend hours imagining how the movie might have ended. As he thinks back now, this was the first time that he ever thought about telling stories. “Creating stories from films that we could not finish watching was the best part of my childhood,” he says.

Besides movies, karate became a passion for Dai, which he learned at a local athletic center. He excelled at the sport, and it soon consumed his life, especially after he joined the Pakistani national team. Though Dai enjoyed the perks of training with the team and traveling around the country for competitions, he was subjected to racist taunts from competitors, spectators, and even teammates, among other humiliations. When another Hazara athlete he knew—a three-time Olympic boxer—was assassinated in Quetta in 2011, Dai quit the team and never practiced karate again.

The violence impacted him even more directly two years later, when a bomb exploded at a market next to his school on the outskirts of Quetta. The blast killed 126 people, including his best friend and other classmates. Dai was late for school that day, arriving after the bombing. The incident shook him badly, and he immediately made plans to leave Pakistan. He hired smugglers to take him to Indonesia—a two-week trip mostly by airplane and boat, but also including a hike through the Malaysian jungle. Dai was only 17 at the time.

During the journey, he took photographs with a point and shoot camera that he hoped to make into a film. After he arrived in Indonesia, he planned to continue by boat to Australia with other refugees, but they were intercepted by Indonesian police, who confiscated Dai’s camera and arrested him. During his 19 days in jail, Dai served as an informal translator between prisoners and guards, which allowed him time outside his cell. Fearing that he might eventually be sent back to Pakistan, in a moment when no one was watching, he leaped out of a second-story window and escaped to his freedom. He immediately went to the Jakarta office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and applied for refugee protection.

In the three years that Dai lived in Indonesia, waiting for his passage to the West, he began using film to tell his story. He met an Australian filmmaker named Jolyon Hoff, who had been living in Indonesia and was interested in meeting refugees after the Australian government began detaining all asylum seekers arriving by boat. They hit it off and decided to collaborate on a film about Hazara refugees in Indonesia, with Dai serving as cinematographer. Soon after, Dai used his cellphone camera to make a five-minute film that he narrated, called “Life as a Hazara Refugee.” The film, which concerns his time living in a spare apartment with three other Hazara men, focuses on their basic joys—including soccer, cooking, and music—and their frustrations as they await word from the UN about their resettlement. The film won an award at the PLURAL + Youth Video Festival organized by the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration. That brought Dai attention, and he began hearing from international filmmakers, including Academy Award-winning producer and director Eva Orner, who hired him as cinematographer on her documentary film, “Chasing Asylum” (2016), which she was making in Indonesia. 

Many others who saw Dai’s film also reached out to him, asking what they could do to help the plight of the refugees. With many refugee children stuck in Indonesia for years with little to do, Dai says, “I felt that we needed a school.”  In summer 2014, with a $200 donation from Jolyon Hoff, others in the community, and many people who had seen Dai’s film on Facebook, he and a friend started a school for refugees in Cisarua, a district about 40 miles south of Jakarta, in which a large number of refugees and asylum seekers reside. The school opened with a handful of students and has since grown to about 300. “I can’t teach a damn thing, but I’m good at picking the right people and bringing them together,” Dai says. “My friend and I knocked on doors to find people to teach and those people trained others.” The school inspired eight other refugee schools to open across Indonesia and Thailand. Dai continued to make short films about Hazara refugees, and after the United Nations resettled him in Los Angeles, he was invited by Ines Schaber, a CalArts faculty member in the School of Art, to screen his work on campus in 2017. The enthusiasm of the students inspired Dai, and he decided to apply to CalArts to study film. In 2018, he began his undergraduate studies at the Institute, with support from a full scholarship provided partly by CalArts and by a philanthropist whom he met while screening one of his films in Australia.

Despite his love of film, Dai knew nothing about film history when he enrolled at CalArts. He quickly made up for lost time. “I’d go to the film library every day to watch a film,” he says. He’d start with a specific country and watch many of its major films. Then he’d focus on specific directors in each country. He was particularly impressed by Japanese films, Iranian cinema (because of the way their directors managed to tell their stories under censorship constraints), and the films of Eastern Europe. 

He also continued making films, including his current project, a nonfiction feature about three Hazaras in Pakistan: two youths and an older man who supports himself by engraving the names of the deceased on tombstones. Dai recently was awarded a grant from the Allan Sekula Social Documentary Fund at CalArts, which is providing him funds to help him make the film.

Dai appreciates the mentorship he’s received from faculty members in the School of Film/Video, but he says that there’s only so much they can teach him. “They can only guide me to a certain point, because I’m making films in a world they can’t imagine,” he says. He is mostly inspired by his mother, who remains in Quetta. “My mother is uneducated. She cannot write her name. But she always made sure I’d study and go to school. She’s my source of inspiration.”

In 2019, Dai started Espalo, a non-profit organization that raises funds for children to attend school in Pakistan and for scholarships in the U.S. for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.  Three have recently started college in the U.S. “I’m thinking of 15 years from now, when these people will be able to negotiate about children’s rights and women’s rights,” Dai says. “The only way we will end wars is by providing education.

“My goal is to help people,” Dai says. “A lot of people have helped me get to this point. I want to help others. I know how it feels to be a child and not be able to go to school, because I experienced it.”