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Inside a Syrian refugee camp

Documentary finds glimmers of hope amid the heartbreak

By Debra J. White –

The United Nations calls the Syrian refugee crisis the biggest humanitarian concern of our time. A 2015 documentary film, Salam Neighbor, made by Americans Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, leaves no doubt about the crushing effects of the Syrian civil war that began in 2011.

The two filmmakers received permission from the United Nations to live at the Za’Atari refugee camp in Jordan for a month and to film life among the refugees. Around 85,000 Syrians live in the sprawling, dusty camp operated by the UN.

Salam Neighbor opens with Syrians fleeing under the cover of darkness. Men lug suitcases and women carry babies and hold the hands of frightened children. Seniors struggle to walk on canes as entire families and neighbors flee together, fearful of the regime. If captured, imprisonment or death is certain. They finally feel safe upon arrival at Za’Atari, a mere seven miles from the border. All new arrivals are processed, registered and given photo ID cards. Each family receives a tent, food and a hygiene package. Some live in small trailers donated by private agencies.

Ingrasci and Temple receive the same supplies as the refugees for their stay. A neighbor, a middle-aged Syrian man, welcomes the pair, offering to show them how to erect the tent. A boy warns them to keep their food packs sealed or the mice will get to them. It’s not long before curious residents wonder who the two Americans are.

The filmmakers plan to sleep in the camp but are not allowed to do so by the Jordanian police, who provide security. There is concern about safety because of the presence of thugs in the camp. The filmmakers can spend all day in the camp but not overnight. With the help of a local resident, the pair secures a place to sleep in the nearby town of Mafraq.

At 6 a.m. each morning Ingrasci and Temple arrive in the camp and talk to and film residents. They become friendly with a charming 10-year-old boy named Abdel Raouf who refuses to attend the camp’s school. Raouf has been out of school for about two years. Despite urging from Ingrasci and Temple, he still refuses. Finally, one day he agrees to try but experiences a meltdown. His father explains why. Back in Syria, his school was bombed and he never recovered from the trauma of losing friends to the destruction. Raouf does attend the children’s center operated by one of the relief agencies.

The filmmakers also develop a bond with Um Ali, a mother who lost a son to the Syrian regime. Tearfully, she describes how the Syrian army dragged him, already wounded, by a tank to his death. A resilient woman nonetheless, Um Ali tries to come to grips with her status as a refugee. So do other Syrians interviewed in the film. Despite friendships made at the camp, one of the refugees says that nothing will erase the memories of home from his heart.

The camp has schools, medical aid stations and a community center for women and children run by volunteers from aid agencies and camp residents. Many refugees were professionals back home such as doctors, nurses and teachers, and they volunteer their skills at the camp. Syrians are known for their hospitality and their resourcefulness to work and to be productive. Since they are not allowed to legally work in Jordan, they develop their own businesses within the camp. By partnering with local businesses, the Syrians sell food, clothing, jewelry and other items in the camp as a way to earn income and to stay busy. The filmmakers estimate there are at least 3,000 such businesses in the camp.

Most of the 1.5 million Syrians who fled to Jordan do not live in the refugee camp. They are spread through the small country. Although Jordan has been generous to the Syrians, their massive presence has caused tension. Rents have tripled since the war started. Apartments are hard to find. Unemployment has risen. Still, the Jordanian government asks its citizens to be patient. Syrian children attend public school.

UN officials are proud of the camp and the services they offer. Camp personnel and volunteers try to keep order as they coordinate with aid agencies and the Jordanian government to assist the refugees. Still, there are limits. The camp lacks proper sanitation, running water and electricity. The residents are happy to be there nonetheless and thankful to Jordan for offering them safety from the war.

Salam Neighbor, which can now be seen on Netflix, has earned international praise and was an official selection of the American Film Institute, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival and the Washington West Film Festival. The film does an outstanding job peering into the staggering human toll of the Syrian civil war and how it separates families, ruins millions of lives and causes enormous death and destruction. Businesses are in tatters. The school system barely functions as do essential services.

According to news reports, more than 80 percent of Syria has become a vast wasteland of rubble, twisted metal, broken glass, shattered buildings and crushed cars and trucks. At least half a million citizens are dead, over 5 million have fled the country and around 6.3 million are displaced internally. Estimates to rebuild the country, when the fighting eventually ends, are in the tens of billions of dollars. An entire generation of children’s education is disrupted. Thousands of children are orphaned.

Besides depicting the heartbreak of war, the movie also shows a glimmer of hope. Syrians are resourceful despite losing everything. They refuse to be beaten down. They create an economy from the skills they brought by selling food, arts and crafts, and whatever else they need to stay alive. At the end, filmmaker Ingrasci says we get to go home, they do not. But the Syrians never give up.

A footnote: Living on One, the production company of Salam Neighbor, reported on May 27, 2016, that as a result of 10-year-old Raouf’s gripping performance in the film, over $90 million was donated worldwide to the Education Cannot Wait Fund, a global fund to deliver education to children in emergency situations such as the Syrian civil war.

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