President Donald Trump’s travel ban is keeping two Syrians involved with the Oscar-nominated documentary The White Helmets from attending the ceremony.
Raed Saleh and Khaled Khateeb, members of the volunteer search-and-rescue organization known as the White Helmets, are affected by the executive order signed on Jan. 27 that indefinitely bars Syrians from entering the U.S. — making for a short-lived celebration for the team involved with the Netflix film, nominated for best short documentary.
“This was a really difficult film to make so when we found out about the Oscar nomination, we were all thrilled,” The White Helmets director Orlando von Einsiedel tells PEOPLE. “But that only lasted for about 36 hours until we heard about these travel bans. Very quickly the jubilation of the moment dissipated and we were really shocked about what’s happening.”
Signed just days after the Oscar nominations were announced, the executive order immediately threw into jeopardy plans for Saleh, the leader of the White Helmets, and Khateeb, a member who served as cinematographer on the film, to join von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara at the ceremony. But while the filmmakers were shocked at the turn of events, Natasegara tells PEOPLE that it was another tragically common blow for Khateeb, 21.
“He’s obviously very disappointed but what’s perhaps even more tragic is that for him, this is usual,” Natasegara says. “It’s indicative of the way Syrians — whether refugees or guests or guest speakers or White Helmets traveling to places — are treated with suspicion and disdain. So for him, he’s actually not anywhere near as shocked perhaps as the rest of us were, as the people that have risen up in the streets in protest. To him it’s another blow of how little the world really cares about Syrians.”
Natasegara says the filmmakers are still actively working to see whether Saleh and Khateeb can join them in Los Angeles for the ceremony.
Minutes after the nominees were announced — and hours before the ban was signed Khateeb tweeted in jubilation about the nomination. “I’m so proud to have filmed this film and for this nomination,” wrote Khateeb, who joined the White Helmets at 16.
As Syria became increasingly dangerous for Western journalists, the European team behind the movie knew they wouldn’t be able to get the access they needed. So they turned to Khateeb — a young White Helmet who already had some experience.
“It was incredibly dangerous, impossible essentially, for any Western journalist to go in after what happened to journalists like James Foley,” Natasegara says, referring to the journalist who was captured and then beheaded by ISIS. “We got very lucky because Khaled is enormously talented and very brave and already had his still photography showcased. So he had that kind of innate talent at a very, very young age.”
The producer says Khateeb traveled to the Syrian border where the film team was set up and spent weeks working with their own cinematographer Franklin Dow to determine what they needed for the film. “When Khaled went back to continue his work as a White Helmet, he was then filming inside Syria in a way that Franklin could not,” she says.
Natasegara and von Einsiedel say they were inspired to make the movie after seeing the viral video of an infant being miraculously pulled out of rubble alive. When they found out about the team performing the rescue operations, von Einsiedel says they were drawn to the story and knew they had to make the film.
Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, the White Helmets “are just ordinary Syrian civilians — bakers, tailors, builders — who all decided to risk their lives to save their fellow citizens and for us that was a story of hope,” von Einsiedel says. “The story of Syrian civilians, what’s happening to them and the fact that Syrian civilians are banding together to save themselves when the world turns its back on them — that’s an inspiring story and is one that we believe is important for people to know.”
“It’s one we wish Donald Trump would watch one day,” von Einsiedel adds.
The White Helmets is streaming on Netflix now.