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New documentary draws attention to Syrian refugees in Egypt

When life in Egypt becomes too trying for a group of Syrian refugees who have escaped the war back home they decide to make the journey like thousands before them across the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe. The Crossing captures this voyage using footage from a handheld camera and offers an intimate look into the lives of a group of friends who board a fishing boat sailed by smugglers and risk everything they have in search of a safe place to live. As Rami, one of the passengers, puts it: “I hope the world can understand how these people are not trying to flee only for a better life, maybe they are just trying to have a life.”

Through the documentary we learn that Nabil abandoned his post in the army in Syria and hid in the sewers for 17 days before Jabhat Al-Nusra captured him. “They were easier to deal with than the Egyptians,” he says of the militant group, a comment that illustrates neatly how bad life is for Syrians living in Egypt. “Harassment. Very unpleasant,” he says later, describing how the Egyptian police have stopped him on more than one occasion and threatened to put him in jail or take him to the embassy. Meanwhile the Syrian embassy has refused to renew Rami’s expired passport twice.

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In weaving together the personal stories of these Syrian refugees, The Crossing allows the viewer to connect with them as individuals and “real people” rather than just as another statistic on the news. But its reliance on personal testimonies alone means it falls short of providing the viewer with some solid facts about the little known issue of the plight of Syrian refugees in Egypt.

Over 140,000 of the 261,741 refugees in Egypt are from Syria. According to a report by Refugees International, the Egyptian government’s crackdown on humanitarian organisations since 2013 has had a negative affect on the Syrian refugee community in Egypt, as has the fact that they are demonised by the Egyptian media. Syrian refugees face arbitrary arrest, deportation, and harassment and children have been attacked on their way to school. Many struggle to pay for medical care, rent and food, with little humanitarian support.

Back to The Crossing and we watch the families prepare for their journey. They are packing light as they have been told their possessions may be thrown into the sea if they are too heavy. Shower gel, shampoo, dramenex for seasickness and plenty of cigarettes are bundled tightly into waterproof parcels. Captured on camera is a conversation with the smuggler where he reveals that the journey will cost 6,000 Euros, before declaring: “If the boat sinks it’s not my problem.” But the viewer is again left with questions – is that 6,000 Euros per person or for the whole group? Is that the average price for a refugee crossing the Mediterranean? How do Syrian refugees living in Egypt raise those funds?

The Crossing is at its best when it captures the boat journey across the sea, a journey we hear so much about in the news but we rarely have such a first hand, intimate glimpse of what conditions are really like on board. There are bodies sleeping almost on top of each other and children urinating into plastic bags. Najib, the wife of one of the passengers, reveals later in the documentary that on his journey passengers ran out of water so drank the boat’s radiator water. Yet despite the difficulty of spending days on the sea, there is also a sense of hope among the passengers. “The voyage was dangerous of course but there were beautiful moments too. We sang because people always have hope, even if only a faint hope,” says Nabil.

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The story of the refugees on board the boat does not stop when they reach the shore; The Crossing follows the characters and the difficulties they face when they reach Europe. Seeking asylum, enrolling in language courses, attending school, finding jobs and assimilating into their new lives are the challenges thousands face each day.

The Crossing will be screened as part of the Human Rights Watch film festival in London on 15 and 16 March.

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