A Tale of Two Visionaries

By By Madison Clark ’15
Spring Summer 2024 Issue

In the realm of visual storytelling, the documentaries of Fernando Ramirez ’82 and Baktash Ahadi ’05 converge, painting a vivid picture of the human experience in times of war and highlighting the transformative power of people and their stories. Both individuals, hailing from immigrant backgrounds and armed with a profound sense of purpose, are driven by a common goal: to effect positive change in the world by amplifying the voices of marginalized communities.

Ramirez created Beyond the Statistics about displaced Ukrainian refugees to focus the narrative on their courage and resilience rather than the statistics about the horrors of the war. For Ahadi, the focus of Retrograde was personal: to document the aftermath of our nation’s withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan, his native homeland. While the contexts of the wars in Ukraine and Afghanistan may differ, both documentaries shed light on the profound impact of conflict on individuals and communities. In Afghanistan, decades of war have left lasting trauma and displacement among its people. Similarly, the invasion of Ukraine has thrust millions into uncertainty, forcing families to flee their homes and navigate the complexities that brings. Through intimate storytelling and firsthand accounts, both documentaries aim to humanize the experiences of those affected by war — highlighting the universal themes of courage, compassion and unwavering determination amidst adversity — and inspire social change.

Pursuit of Social Impact

Fernando Ramirez ’82 spent more than 30 years in the environmental sector, specifically in energy efficiency. He leveraged his business degree to build social impact companies, including numerous entrepreneurial ventures in sustainable energy and water access. In 2021, he founded Bridges 2030, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization dedicated to supporting two groups in particular: forcibly displaced communities and the next generation of changemakers.

“I believe that our passions are shaped by personal experience. My own family has an immigrant journey; we arrived in the U.S. in 1970 from Colombia, so I can relate to the struggles of moving to a foreign land,” he says. “The significant difference is that my family had a choice, but over 110 million forcibly displaced people all over the world do not. Bridges 2030 is my way to support and amplify the voices of people who have been forced to flee.”

The organization’s efforts include creating jobs in the solar industry, bridging the digital divide, and providing direct aid to Ukrainian refugees in Philadelphia; each of these aligns with the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Additionally, the documentary Beyond the Statistics is Bridge 2030’s first foray into film development — but likely not its last.

Bridging Divides, Building Empathy

Ramirez is a lifelong documentary fan, and points to Anthony Bourdain as an inspiration behind his ability to weave together artistic storytelling and cultural engagement. Beyond the Statistics focuses on the human impact of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine beginning in February 2022, and aims to amplify the voices of Ukrainian families forcibly displaced from their home.

“Mainstream media is focused on providing statistics about every global crisis, so the atrocities of this invasion have been well documented. We felt there was another story that needed to be told: courage, determination, and resiliency by the Ukrainian people, as well as the support of the Polish people who have embraced over 1.7 million Ukrainian citizens arriving in Poland,” he says. “We are sharing the perspective of the human spirit, determination for survival and freedom, and the people supporting and protecting human dignity.”

Ramirez sees younger generations as partners in this mission, which plays a part in his work to empower young people to build lives and careers on a foundation of purpose and compassion.

“To ensure our mission outlives us and our impact multiplies, we must empower and mobilize the next generation. I know that many young people suffer from compassion fatigue; we’re carrying phones around with us that are constantly updating us with news around the world and there’s always another crisis,” he says. “But I do believe that we have a sense of responsibility in this country. Let’s be clear: we live a privileged life compared to many people in developing countries that struggle every day to meet their basic needs.”

Compassionate Engagement, Cultural Understanding

No matter what purpose someone pursues, Ramirez is emphatic that everyone should develop the skills to sort out inaccurate information online, research the history behind a crisis, and communicate effectively across cultures. He’s hopeful that Susquehanna’s Global Opportunities program can contribute to each of these — especially if students are willing to be a little uncomfortable.

“I encourage students to broaden their cultural horizons by making a point to be a traveler and not a tourist. Do some research before you travel, visit places with significant cultural value, meet students from other countries rather than staying within a U.S.-centric friend group,” he says. “Being out of your element helps you learn so much. It can be easy to shy away from being uncomfortable, but I encourage people to embrace it.”

When Ramirez looks back at the path he’s taken, he feels a deep sense of gratitude for every experience.

“My life has been an internship that brought me to where I am today,” he says. “All of the lessons that I’ve learned, all of the people that I’ve met, all of the travel that I’ve done, and the unconditional support from my family. T hat’s why I am where I am today.” 

A Legacy of Storytelling

Within moments of speaking with Baktash Ahadi ’05, it’s abundantly clear that he’s a storyteller. He speaks intentionally, visibly conscious of the weight of each word, and self-corrects as he shares, highlighting both his own lived experiences and those he’s been privileged to hear as a part of his intercultural work. This remarkable presence is hard-earned – and over 30 years in the making.

“When I was a kid, I was deeply shy. I didn’t speak until about the age of 10,” Ahadi says. “I didn’t know that I had a voice, that I had to believe in myself first, before the world would believe in me.”

Considering his professional résumé, this history may be hard to believe. Since studying sociology at Susquehanna, Ahadi’s served two years in the Peace Corps in Mozambique, Africa, and returned to his home country of Afghanistan to dedicate three years to combat interpretation and cultural advising. He created and hosted the Stories of Transformation podcast and founded the Taleem Project, subsequently producing and translating numerous renowned documentaries, including Retrograde, which captured the last nine months of America’s war in Afghanistan — and earned Ahadi three 2023 Emmy Awards.

Shy Beginnings to Global Impact

This dedication to filmmaking can be traced back to Ahadi’s arrival in the United States in 1986. Not long after he was born in Kabul, his family f led Afghanistan and spent years in Pakistani refugee camps before being granted asylum and moving to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Community members who supported his family’s arrival introduced a young Ahadi to many films.

“Our sponsors would turn on their television and play movies for us: Star Wars, E.T., Indiana Jones. I didn’t know any English, but you don’t have to know English to understand that you are on a safari in a different world,” Ahadi says. “That is why I do this work. Films are a physical, emotional journey to another world. And when films touch us, they stay with us forever.”

While visual storytelling is his primary vehicle of choice to tell the human stories of vulnerable populations, Ahadi sees all forms of storytelling as opportunities to deeply engage with others and, as a result, expand cultural literacy.  

“Stories get to the crux of what it means to be human. It does require a radical sense of curiosity about the person in front of you to take off your mask and show who you actually are,” he says. “But I don’t think there’s a better education for a person than going to a far-off land, sitting amongst people who have completely different lived experiences from you, and hearing what they think about family, violence, the nation state, the environment, sports and their relationship to all of these things.”

Fulfillment Through Purpose

Today, Ahadi is busy directing two f ilms, one of which focuses on combat veterans, mental health and equine therapy. Across all of his projects, he continues to rely on the same self-awareness, communication skills and intense sense of gratitude that have contributed to his fulfillment thus far.

“Success is often defined by what society tells you is worthy. But fulfillment, on the other hand, is actually living the life that you were meant for,” he says. “Many of us look externally for answers and we are told that success is a status, salary, house, land, whatever. But I’ve realized that so many of the answers I’ve looked for have actually been inside of me, in my inspirations, flaws, motivations and shame.”

Like so many Susquehanna alumni, Ahadi continues to support others — especially those who are interested in elevating their stories, whether in film, leadership or business. He’s hopeful that his work helps others feel more courageous in pursuing their own fulfillment.

“When I’m speaking with people who have lost so much, they’re not asking for a passport to America. They’re not asking for a million dollars. They’re mostly asking to be heard,” he says.

Connect with Baktash Ahadi ’05 through LinkedIn

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