I remember seeing the images, pictures of children covered in dust, debris, and blood. The 2015 photograph of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, who drowned during his family’s flight to Europe, left me devastated. More photographs followed, images of devastation and loss in cities like Aleppo. At the same time, the international conversation regarding refugees reached a fever pitch, playing a central role in the 2016 U.S. presidential and Brexit votes. It seemed everyone was discussing the refugee crisis, but not many people were talking about the human beings affected.
Refugees became symbols. Opponents of resettlement programs depicted them as terrorists, a threat to jobs, and as criminals. On the other side of the conversation, refugees became generalized symbols of global suffering and injustice. While on one level this helped spur a necessary conversation, it also ran the risk of marginalization by erasing the humanity of the people involved.
All of this spurred my desire to learn more, to help in some way. In early 2017, I worked with my church to host a screening of the documentary film Salam Neighbor. The movie follows filmmakers Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci during their thirty-day stay at the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Their stated goal was not to simulate the life of a Syrian refugee but to create a space for dialogue, to hear the stories of some of the eighty-five thousand people living in the camp and share them with the outside world.
A few months after the screening, I spoke with Chris Temple about his experience in Za’atari. I wanted to know how to help solve the humanitarian crisis Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, described as, “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time.”
“We were on tour with Living on One Dollar and we met this incredible woman who was the daughter of Palestinian refugees,” Temple said. “She spoke to us of this whole other side of the crisis we weren’t seeing in the news. The coverage we were seeing was entirely on the war, focusing on violence and no focus or discussion on the millions of families.”
The United Nations granted permission for Temple and Ingrasci to embed in the camp, the first filmmakers ever to be given this right. They registered at the camp, were provided a tent, and for the next month, split their time between Za’atari and the nearby city of Mafraq.
“When we arrived that first day all of these families poured out of the tents around us to help us set up,” Temple said. “Raouf, a ten-year-old boy, became our little guide on that first day there. He helped us dig a well and a little moat around the outside of our tent for water runoff. He was a ten-year-old boy like I was [once], and I think that he’s an example of how, if you get the chance to meet somebody from one of these situations that we fear, you’ll notice that we actually share more in common than what divides us.”
After surviving a school bombing, Raouf struggles with trauma. He resists attending the school in the camp, despite his dream of becoming a doctor. Following his story, Zach and Chris meet the teachers, art therapists, and counselors working in Za’atari to help the camp’s children, an estimated 58 percent of its population.
Chris and Zach also established a continuing friendship with a young, talented chef named Ismail, who left behind his education to flee the civil war. His story paints a picture of the upwardly mobile, middle class society that existed in Syria before the conflict. It was a community not so different from those we see in the United States and Europe. According to Searching for Syria, an interactive webpage developed by Google, Living on One, and the United Nations refugee agency, the top web searches in Syria of 2010 (one year before the start of the conflict) were Arab Idol, “bodybuilding,” “summer fashion,” and “Miley Cyrus.” Substitute American Idol, and the searches could have taken place in the United States.
The refugees living in Za’atari have worked to create something of their former lives within the camp, building a fully functioning economy and schools. Residents of the camp have even developed companies like a pizza delivery service.
“When you think about a refugee camp, you don’t anticipate walking into a place with a multimillion dollar economy with over three thousand businesses operating,” Temple said. “I think again it’s an example of how any of us would want to respond if we were put into a refugee camp. You try to create a sense of normalcy, to create a sense of what life was like before the war. I think it’s how many of us would react.”
Other residents engage in creative activism and art to bring a sense of healing. Um Ali, a woman who lost two of her children to the war, began collecting discarded plastic bags from around the camp and using them to create intricate weavings. The process served as a kind of outlet for her grief. It turned into a small business and later led an NGO to hire her. Ali now teaches the craft to other young women in the camp.
According to Temple, the people he met also have a keen sense of the global conversation surrounding their lives. They have heard the rhetoric and did not hesitate to press Temple and Ingrasci on the subject. Several of the men even asked Temple if he believed the depictions of refugees as dangerous terrorists.
“Of course my answer was no, but it showed me the incredibly important element of how we speak about refugees, because they’re listening,” Temple said. “Syrians are so incredibly connected. Kids like Raouf…He is hearing the statements made. He’s listening to the dialogues that are happening across TV, telling him over and over again that he has no worth. That he’s dangerous.”
The film, and my conversation with Chris, have brought to life the words in Deuteronomy 10:19, “You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” When I read of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, being denied entry to cities, and pursued by their enemies, I see the Syrians driven from their home. Learning their stories has shown me that, but for a simple accident of geography, our lives are fundamentally the same. When I look at children like Raouf and women like Um Ali, I can’t help seeing my own children or my mother. What kind of life do I want for them?
I’ve started looking into programs that can help bring things like libraries to refugee camps, writing letters of encouragement through groups like Care.org, and attending interfaith events with our local Muslim community to promote greater understanding. I’ve even been fortunate enough to meet some Syrian refugees, learn their story, and share it with my friends and neighbors.
Most of all, I’ve tried to change the way I talk, taking to heart what Chris Temple describes as the first step to helping refugees everywhere. “It starts with changing how we speak about a refugee, not seeing them as a burden, as something to be feared, but instead as a person just like you and me.”
For more, visit any of the links above or check out the film Salam Neighbor in its entirety on Netflix here.