At the beginning of the film, there is a tunnel. We are travelling through the tunnel, towards the light…
Most of us will have read or heard about the current situation in Lebanon – the fact that there are approximately 1 million registered Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon, comprising a large 25% of the population. However, statistics aside, what is it like to actually be a Syrian refugee in Lebanon? The film, 'Lost in Lebanon' sheds light on this question by telling the story of Sheikh Abdo, Reem, Nemr and Mwafak.
When the conflict in Syria started, millions of homes and livelihoods became destroyed. Many Syrians made the difficult decision to leave. Their neighboring country of Lebanon became the natural place to go. Syrians hoped that they could find temporary shelter there, and wait peacefully until the war had ended and they could return to Syria.
One such person was Sheikh Abdo, proud husband and father of one, with another child on the way. He is thrilled to be a father, after eight long years of trying to conceive with his wife. Abdo and his family moved to Lebanon and built a small makeshift compound. Soon, more and more families joined until Sheikh Abdo became the leader of a 70-family-strong refugee camp. But, as leader, Sheikh Abdo has a lot of responsibility resting on his shoulders. Sheikh Abdo expresses his concern at the lack of education for refugee children, and the emotional damage caused by growing up in a conflict zone: "When a child carries a weapon, they will never think of carrying anything else." Abdo tries to address this problem by setting up a school within the camp.
Luckily, there are people like Nemr, a young volunteer teacher at the camp, who had just finished school when the war started. Nemr fled Syria to escape conscription into the Syrian army: “I wish people could return to school so we make scientists not terrorists."
One of the most amazing moments in 'Lost in Lebanon' comes as we explore the camp and witness a group of camp kids perform their own original rap song:
“I wish to see the last bullet, even if it's in my own body. I wish to watch Tom and Jerry, not Ban Ki Moon and John Kerry. I wish to watch the news only to know the weather forecast.”
Mwafak - image via 'Lost in Lebanon' official website
26 year old artist, Mwafak, left Syria for the same reason as Nemr. But, he never enrolled as a refugee with the UN, and instead lives with some friends in a flat, making sculptures, chain smoking, and trying to plan his next steps. Mwafak’s attitude seems to fluctuate from indifference, to sadness, to dark humour – when he finally made the journey to the UNHCR to register as a refugee and was told they weren’t accepting any more, he simply laughed. Apparently he was the only person to laugh when told this news. However, Mwafak is far from happy, his humour masking his own quiet desperation.
The situation in Lebanon changed around the end of 2014, when the Lebanese government decided to close their borders to Syrian refugees, due to the country's overburdened infrastructure. The government also began to place more restrictions on Syrians already residing in Lebanon, including refusing to renew their residency permits. By the end of 2016, thousands of Syrians had lost their residency permits. But of course, they couldn’t go back to Syria and risk death, so most stayed illegally.
“If we cant go back to Syria, and we can't stay in Lebanon, and we cant just jump in the sea, then what are we to do? They might as well exterminate us”, says a man in frustration to our fourth protagonist, Yeem, who is mentoring a group of refugees and helping them with their documents. 26-year-old Yeem fled Syria after she became wanted by authorities because of her political activism. She is currently volunteering in Lebanon, but hopes that she can apply for a youth leadership program abroad. Yeem and her brother had to leave their parents behind in Syria, who refused to leave the home they had been building for the last 30 years.
Yeem got accepted onto a program in Sweden, but she is unable to get a visa. She has tried 3 times and each time been rejected. In all of Yeem’s interviews, Yeem sounds strong and determined, convinced that her chance will come. However, after the third rejection, her hope receives a massive knock. As she smokes a cigarette she says with calm rage, “Fuck passports. Any person in the world should be able to go wherever they wish.”
Yeem - image via The Guardian
The situation is the same for Nemr, whose application to remain in Lebanon has also been denied. All the protagonists are now living in Lebanon illegally. Sheikh Abdo has been arrested three times, but managed to be released each time.
The one person able to help Sheikh Abdo is the Friedrich Bokern, founder of 'Rest and Reconciliation for Syria' (R&R). The big, blond and incredibly kind German man left the “glass and steel cages” of Brussels to work on the ground in Lebanon, where he founded R&R. Bokern appears throughout the film, conversing in fluent Arabic with all of the camp mates, playing with the children, dancing and sharing meals. He is part of the family and a close friend of Sheikh Abdo. Bokern is trying to support the camp as best he can by securing funding, offering legal advice and helping provide supplies. “The lack of empathy we have in the West is staggering- and I am from the West; I am a Westerner", says Bokern.
The mood of quiet desperation, of frustration alternating with despondency all comes across in the film interviews and footage. But, through it all, everybody supports each other, and people still manage to laugh, smile, share tea and dance together. It is important, says Sheik Abdu, to keep up morale for the sake of the children, many of whom do not remember life in Syria. “If, when we go back to Syria, we will have three generations of illiterate children, then this is a problem. How will we rebuild Syria then?”
There is joy for Sheikh Abdu too, when his second child is born. We see the child, so tiny, being wrapped in clothes by a nurse. However, the likelihood of Abdu's child being recognized as a Lebanese citizen is slim - 72% of babies currently born in Lebanon do not have birth certificate and risk becoming stateless.
The film finishes unresolved. There are no happy endings for Yeem, Mwafak, Abdu or Nemr. All of them are now living in Lebanon illegally. But they have nowhere else to go. Yeem is still trying to apply for Visas abroad. Nemr isn’t sure what he will do. Abdu is determined to stay in the camp with his family. Mwfak is planning to cross the sea to Turkey, to continue his journey to find a new home.
We are back at the end off the tunnel, but this time we are moving backwards, away from the light. Slowly we get farther and farther away from the light until it becomes dark. The end.
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