Filmmaker from Pacific Beach explores refugee plight in San Diego


PB resident Bettina Hanna has a passion for exploring controversial issues. It’s what fuels her fervor for documentary filmmaking. Her latest project, “The Bus Station,” captures the plight of refugees caught in a chaotic web of immigration law and politics, as they’re dropped off in downtown San Diego and left to fend for themselves.

“A friend of mine heard about the refugees and partnered with another woman to help these families get in touch with their relatives and give them food and toiletries,” Hanna told PB Monthly. “I thought that story was so beautiful because these women were going there every week — sometimes two times a week — to help the families.

“The women are retired teachers who could sit at home and watch TV all day long, but instead they’re working hard to provide some comfort to these refugees. The situation resonates with me because I like to hear about people doing good for nothing in return. That’s how it’s supposed to be — people who are privileged helping the less fortunate.

“Many of these refugees didn’t choose to be here, they had to come, and the whole process is so hard. People have no idea what it takes to be accepted as a refugee. I decided to document the story at the bus station because their struggles are real.”

Hanna, 40, was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She said her Egyptian-born father and Brazilian mother taught her the value of helping others at an early age. Her way of giving back is to share the stories of those in need and the people who help them, so that others can be educated and emotionally drawn into our common human struggles.

Hanna added that as the child of an immigrant, she understands the plight of refugees because she is in the process of trying to get a green card to remain in the United States.

“I consider myself a very privileged person because I was granted a visa to study in the country and afterward to work here,” she explained. “It’s an honor that not many achieve, and I’m very grateful and proud of that. Being a foreigner makes it easier for me to put myself in a refugee’s shoes. I’m not a refugee, but just like them, I’m seeking to live in this country to have a better life. I come from a very rich country in terms of natural resources, but we live in a constant battle with poverty, violence and social inequality.

“I believe life is about the choices you make and if you look at it this way, I am the same thing as a refugee. But I have the choice to live here, and for many of them, it’s not a choice; moving to the U.S. can be a lifesaver for them.”

However, the refugees don’t even know where they are when they’re let out from the backs of the trucks they’ve been riding in for days on end. Many are young families who are scared and penniless. They wear ankle bracelets that track their whereabouts (which will ostensibly be removed when they reach their destination) — the home of some relative somewhere in the United States of America.

“The Bus Station” profiles volunteers Mimi Pollack and Paula Sassi who supply food, water, toiletries and support to the refugees when they are dropped off. The women remember a man from Honduras, traveling with his two little boys, who didn’t have a bus ticket and very little food or water; and a couple with a baby who said they came from Guatemala to the border in a truck “all squeezed in” and hadn’t eaten in two days.

Hanna, who is trying to start a family herself, empathizes deeply with these families.

In the documentary, Sassi recalls how one man came up to her and asked in Spanish to use her cell phone: “He handed me this tiny little piece of paper ... they don’t even have paper to write on ... and it had a number on it, so I dialed it for him and he talked to his family. They don’t know how to get where they’re going, they don’t have any supplies, and most of the time, they don’t have any money. A few times I’ve reached in and given $20 to people.”

Many of the refugees are from Guatemala. When asked why they made the journey to the United States, they say “to have a better life.” One man explains: “There are few jobs and we don’t get paid much. There’s a lot of poverty and that’s why we have to migrate to the United States.”

Pollack and Sassi hand out bags with enough food and supplies for several days of travel, and then send the asylum-seekers on their way with bus tickets for destinations across the country.

Hanna said she hopes that by documenting the Good Samaritans who help these refugees, she can raise awareness about border issues and shed light on the ongoing struggles.

“The Bus Station” will be finished in June and is still in the funding process for distribution. Hanna said she plans to submit the documentary to several film festivals across the country. To watch an excerpt (and more of Hanna’s work), visit