EXCLUSIVE: Dr. Amani Ballour, the courageous subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Cave, has been granted a visa to enter the United States in time for the Academy Awards, Deadline has learned.
Amani, whose efforts to run a subterranean hospital in the besieged Syrian city of Eastern Ghouta are documented in the film by Feras Fayyad, is expected to arrive in New York on Sunday, capping an extensive effort by distributor National Geographic to get her here.
“I have seen the visa with my own eyes. It was texted to me this morning,” Chris Albert, EVP Marketing Strategy and Communications at National Geographic, told Deadline exclusively. “For Dr. Amani — who is just, in our eyes, such a hero — to be able to come [here] … in person means a lot to us.”
Nat Geo previously went to bat for Fayyad, who had been denied a visa to come back to the U.S. under Trump administration policy banning citizens of several predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria, from entering the country. As Deadline reported Sunday, Fayyad finally got his visa “after weeks of turmoil and struggle and obstacles no one should have to endure,” as National Geographic Documentary Films phrased it in a statement.
Amani was forced to flee to Turkey in 2018 after Syrian government forces squelched the last pockets of resistance in Ghouta. As a refugee in Turkey, that country had a say in whether she would be allowed to travel.
“The Turkish government first had to give her permission to leave and return,” Albert explained, adding that a breakthrough came earlier this month when Dr. Amani was awarded the prestigious Raoul Wallenberg Prize for her humanitarian work. Turkey allowed the physician to go to France to accept the prize. NatGeo then redoubled its efforts to get a U.S. visa for Amani, working in concert with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).
“The team at SAMS — because this is something they have done before—really, really helped us in this process,” Albert noted. “They got Dr. Amani an appointment at the American embassy in Paris and then helped in finalizing it so that she got her visa, which she picked up late [Thursday].”
Fayyad expressed pleasure that the subject of his film is heading stateside.
“I’m very excited to be here and now more excited to announce that Dr. Amani will join us to support The Cave,” he told Deadline exclusively, “and share her voice as a powerful Syrian woman and leader who will bring most of her focus on the future of Syria, calling for peace and justice.”
Albert expects Amani will hit the ground running once she arrives.
“Katie Couric and Dr. Amani are going to host our final FYC screening [of The Cave] Monday night in New York,” he comments. “We’re hopefully going to have her on Good Morning America early in the week, and then she’ll make her way out to L.A. so she can be at the Oscars.”
Attending the Academy Awards is not the only priority for Amani while she is in the U.S. She will spend time raising awareness and money for the Al Amal Fund, an entity recently created by the King Baudouin Foundation to honor the doctor. Among the fund’s goals is to support female medical workers risking their lives in conflict zones.
“That is her real mission and her real desire,” Albert said. “[She wants] to get this fund up and running so she can support others who are in the position she was in.”
Amani’s visa approval came the same day final Oscar voting began (the window closes Tuesday). The long delay for her and Fayyad to arrive on U.S. shores has kept them from making their case to Oscar voters in person, Fayyad said.
“The time is too short to do anything,” he said, “But Dr. Amani will see so much love from the Americans.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Nat Geo’s Albert.
“For her to be here Monday at our last official Q&A before voting ends, to be able to experience the warmth of the audience and the reception of the film, I think it’s just so important to us,” Albert told Deadline. “I’m really thrilled it was able to work out.”