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Salam Neighbor: Documentary’s Review

How is it like to build a new life from scratch, after you lost everything you worked for? How does it feel to be trapped in a perennial limbo filled with precariousness and uncertainty? What are the refugees going through after fleeing their country?

The Syrians’ Refugee Crisis

Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, two American filmmakers, decided to attempt to answer these questions and live like refugees in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which hosts more than 85,000 Syrians. The UN allowed the two Americans to have a tent to live to conduct sociological and anthropological experiments to be used by the UNCHR in future projects.

The UN personnel provides education, clean water and food for the refugees. Since the beginning of the civil war and until 2015, more than 3.7 millions of Syrians were forced to leave their home country to seek for a brighter and safer future for themselves. Additionally, after four years since the eruption of the civil war, more than 6.5 millions of people are internally displaced within Syria. These people are not provided with housing and basic living conditions and often cannot access to education.

According to the UNHCR, Jordan is the sixth highest refugee-hosting country in the world with 87 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants. Jordan is a small Arab state with a population of approximately 10 million people and as of March 2015, the total number of Syrian refugees amounted to 625,000. Nonetheless, the country’s unemployment increased from 12.5% to 16.5% between 2012 and 2017 and due to the lack of resources, the country found itself incapable of offering sustainable living conditions for the Syrian refugees. The United Nations High Refugee Agency (UNHCR) cooperates together with 35 non-profit organisations to provide the refugees with humanitarian aid, but unfortunately, it received only 50% of the funds that the countries promised. The schemes of assistance heavily relies upon private donations and public revenues, the two also lacking. A great number of refugees are forced to embark into highly dangerous journeys and 95% of them are smuggled into Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. The Zaatari camp comprises 12 districts, which enjoy some degree of political autonomy as they each elect a leader that represent them. The refugee camp, nonetheless, is strictly controlled by the Jordanian police, which ultimately has the final say on the fate of these people.

Living like them

Zach and Chris decided to truly put themselves into these people’s shoes and experience the authenticity of living in a refuge camp. Indeed, by registering as refugees, they received the same degree of assistance that the latter received and treated just like them. Living in camp among people that experienced so much suffering and pain proved from the very beginning not an easy task. However, it is  usually in the most desperate and disadvantaged situations that people help other and show solidarity to their neighbours. The two foreigners immediately become very popular as refugees, who believe that neighbours are to be treated with respect and keep coming to pay a visit as they are amused by them. However, the two ‘guests’ cannot stay overnight for security reasons and therefore have to move to a city 7 miles away from Zaatari. Nonetheless, the two documentarians are often invited by different people to their tents, where they cook delicious dinners for them and spend time all together.

Their Stories

Throughout their journey, they seize the chance of hearing the intense and sorrowful stories that the people share with them. Life is very challenging and full of obstacles for the inhabitants of the camp. Ismail, for example, is one of the very first refugees that arrived at the camp and used to be a French teacher in Damascus. This young man reminds one of the protagonist his dad, as he loves to cook and has a similar sense of humour. Mafraq, a Syrian woman, is relieved that her house is still intact, as he saw on Youtube. Abu Ali is an old woman who produces magnificent handcrafts with plastic bags that she collects around the camp. After three months during which other people mocked her for her passion, she now thanks God for giving her these skills. She also writes her intimate thoughts on the walls: “Even if you erase it from the walls, you cannot erase it from my heart”. The wounds in her heart are profound. She terribly misses all her beloved ones. Raouf is a 3rd grade child who wants to become a doctor but does not want to school before he comes back home, even though it’s only 10 minutes from where he lives. The problem of children’s lack of education severely affects not only Zaatari but also other refugees camps in Greece, Lebanon and Turkey. It is estimated that 50% of the children in the camp don’t attend school regularly. Additionally, schools provide only limited education, as the learning centres merely prepare the children for when they are returning to Syria. Abu Muhamad, Raouf’s fater, tells that their house and the street in which they lived were utterly destroyed by the bombs. He then confesses that he is particularly worried for his son’s future, which, as many other children in Zaatari, risks to be trapped in a vicious cycle of violence due to the lack of opportunities. After hearing this story, Chris bursts into tears: “Generous and good people like this do not deserve all of this”. They indeed realize how these young people are vulnerable to religious and ideological extremism, which often represents a very appealing alternative path to them. The kids are deeply traumatized, as it can be seen from their drawings illustrating people in tears. The marginalisation and inactivity of the youth can indeed be exploited by terrorist organisations such as Isis, called with the derogatory name Daesh by the Syrians, which often find a ground fertile to radicalise and convert young and naïve minds. Kids are constantly confronted with atrocities and play violent games that disclose their level of tolerance towards death.

Zaatari: An ever-expanding city?

The Geneva Talks in April 2016, determining the failure to reach an agreement between the UN and Assad’s opposition force, namely the Syrian’s High Negotiation Committee, greatly resonated in Zaatari. Refugees expressed their fierce disapproval of the ongoing war and displayed solidarity towards the victims of the armed struggles. Although they try to cooperate with Jordanian people to be as productive as possible, the refugees are denied a permanent visa for residence and on average they find themselves stuck in temporary camps for 17 years. Indeed, the camp represents a small-term solution for a big-term problem. Dignity creates the conditions for a long-lasting peace and therefore there is the urgent need to invest in human capital and development, instead of focusing on the immediate responses. Zaatari indeed evolved into a well-functioning city, with more than 3000 businesses and a thriving economy. As a member of the UNHCR claims the refugees conceptualise space differently: “We are building a camp, they’re building a city”. The refugees indeed invest in houses’ construction and build living rooms, gardens and even swimming pools for themselves. Zaatari camp is becoming by all means a permanent settlement.

The two unusual hosts of the camp reveal their extreme joy for the life-changing and learning experience thy lived in camp. Although people underwent so many difficult situations and overcame tough obstacles, they are still more than willing to open the doors of their dwellings and welcome strangers. The most crucial steps to make are to breach the cycle of distrust, violence and poverty that is eroding society. This is the refugee crisis. These people’s life are much more complicated than what we can possibly think. Any oversimplification of the complexity of this humanitarian, social and political crisis has to be avoided and discloses a deep lack of understanding of its dynamics.

Volunteering experiences

A former volunteer in a Lebanese refugee camp 10 km from the Syrian border also wants to share her story after the end of the documentary. She also empathises with the filmmakers crying, because sometimes the emotions generated by the stories are simply overwhelming. She was teaching English to the kids and reports how they were deeply traumatized, having their life marked forever. The people there could only eat one tomato and one cucumber per day. The adults could not work, the children could not go to school. The project’s organiser was very involved in the activities and used to wake up at 6 am every morning. AIESEC is an NGO run by students and for students and it really depends what you make out of the preparatory programme and the experience.

The whole Diplomat Team would like to thank AIESEC and Nour project for organising this screening and wishes to engage sometime soon in contemporary and globally relevant issues such as the refugee crisis.


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