Film director starts NGO Solidaire, flies refugees out of crisis zones like Ukraine

When we took off for a refugee camp on the border with Kenya, the plane moved in a straight line on the runway, with all of Mogadishu below us. I thought, “Anyone here with a slingshot could shoot us down.”
It occurred to me, I needed to talk to the United Nations.

  • 2 years ago
  • September 26, 2022
5 min read
Enrique Piñeyro, a pilot who founded of Solidaire, pictured with Ukrainian refugees Enrique Piñeyro, a pilot who founded of Solidaire, pictured with Ukrainian refugees | Photo courtesy of Enrique Piñeyro
Enrique Piñeyro
Interview Subject
Enrique Piñeyro (Genoa, Italy, December 9, 1956) is an Argentinian nationalized Italian actor, director, and film producer. He is also an aeronautical doctor, activist, philanthropist, and airline transport pilot. He was the commander of LAPA (Argentine Private Air Lines) and an air accident investigator. He directed the films Whiskey Romeo Zulú (2004), Fuerza Aérea Sociedad Anónima (2006), Bye Bye Life (2008), and El Rati Horror Show (2010).
Background Information
More than 5.65 million people fled Ukraine following the Russian military intervention, according to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This exceptional displacement caused a humanitarian crisis in the region that is becoming a “human trafficking crisis.”

MADRID, Spain — I carried out several humanitarian flights through my organization Solidaire and partner Open Arms, transporting refugees from the war in Ukraine to different cities in Europe.

Each flight landed at the Ezeiza International Airport in Argentina. The passengers received humanitarian visas provided the government. The flights came through Madrid, Spain, transporting refugees from Poland.

Seeing the Ukrainians’ emotions after escaping the horror of war moves me. Refugees generally have nowhere to stay, which constitutes the biggest problem they face when escaping their country. I continue to immense task of moving as many refugees as possible, holding onto hope that Spain can be the gateway for flights moving Ukrainians to Argentina.

Along with my entourage, we hold talks with embassies around the world to coordinate, among other things, the arrival and reception of victims from this brutal war. My next mission includes settling refugees in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Spain. I have

Flights into high-risk zones expose the dangers faced by humanitarian missions

We organize humanitarian flights through a non-governmental organization we setup called Solidaire. We started this work after filming a documentary in Somalia in 2017 after realizing how unsafe the flights were. You arrive in Somalia in United Nations airplanes and immediately face a very dangerous place.

Flying into Mogadishu, a city in the southeastern part of Somalia, our plane traveled over the sea. It flew quite low for about 20 miles along the water. I remember asking myself, “Why is this happening?”

I began to put the pieces together and realized the pilot wanted to avoid making visual impact with the rocket launchers in Somalia, which lay very low and flat. The plane quickly landed on the runway then moved into the hanger.

While the United Nations airport remains protected, the rest of Mogadishu feels like no-man’s land. If you go out, you must do so in armored cars wearing vests and helmets. You cannot spend more than 10 minutes anywhere. When I saw the operation I said, this is an operation in a high-risk zone, but we still felt compelled to complete the documentary.

When we took off for a refugee camp on the border with Kenya, the plane moved in a straight line on the runway, with all of Mogadishu below us. I thought, “Anyone here with a slingshot could shoot us down.”

It occurred to me, I needed to talk to the United Nations. I warned them that attacks could occur during takeoff, not only landings. They told me each company has different protocols. I realized the logistics of humanitarian aid flights occurred precariously.

Facing this reality, I set up Solidaire. We work with partner organizations to deal with logistics related to airliners and risk management, including former airline pilots.

NGOs aid over 3,000 refugees to escape crisis

From then on, I began working with Open Arms. We donated a ship which recently went on its first mission. Open Arms organizes logistics on land. With their outpost in Warsaw, we carried out several missions to aid North Africans and Ukrainians. In our efforts, we see the largest displacement of people since World War II and have transported more than 3,000 refugees.

I grapple with mixed feelings. Our first humanitarian missions to Ukraine felt terrible. We encountered distressed women, children, and elderly people, leaving behind their parents, husbands, and children. They did not want to go. Yet, often, when the plane takes off, people often break out in dance, song, applause, or prayers.

Enrique partnered with Open Arms to carry out missions to transport refugees | Photo courtesy of Enrique Piñeyro

So many stories exist. I hear so many experiences including people who escaped human trafficking and others forced into slavery. I see girls from Afghanistan who escape and can ride a bicycle for the first time without running the risk of imprisonment. These contrasting experiences reveal that the biggest humanitarian crisis today is the refugee crisis.

Ukrainians express mixed emotions as they leave their homeland

On one of the first flights of Ukrainians, I got off the plane in Barcelona. I walked a few steps toward the platform and stood there for a moment. A woman tried to contain her 12-year-old son who cried inconsolably. I approached to ask if I could help her, and she burst into tears.

Right in front of us, a boy of about four years old stood watching us. His eyes expressed bewilderment. He could not understand why the people meant to protect him seemed devastated and uncertain. Those who gave him safety now crumbled right in front of him. I could read his feelings in his gaze as if his eyes could speak.

Enrique and colleagues standing in front of his Solidaire airplane | Photo courtesy of Enrique Piñeyro

Even though my work feels like a drop of water in the ocean, I will continue. To think there are 12 million displaced people seems insane. Even though our effort to help 3,000 people so far appears to be a small solution, at least we are doing something.

I continue my film work as well. I am starting a project directing a play based on the spectacular and shocking recreation of the flight accident of Avianca 052. The play will make us reflect on our fear of airplanes. It will expose human error and the failures and absurdities of communication in aviation.  

With the exact recreation of a Boeing cabin and a set of projections that turn the stage into a flight, the staging achieves a perfect fusion between cinema, theater, and humorous monologue.

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