Sheikh Abdo, a refugee from Syria, had nothing when he arrived in Lebanon but still offered sanctuary to others who had crossed the border. At first people were sleeping in his back garden until he secured permission from a local charity to manage some nearby land. Once he had acquired the land he bought tents; now he is responsible for the 70 families who live in them.
Although they have fled the war, the fighting is ever present – when it’s quiet in the camp you can feel the floor shake and hear the sound of shelling from the nearby Syrian towns.
The Syrian conflict has entered its seventh year, claimed an estimated 400,000 lives and displaced over 13 million Syrians. Over 1.5 million of those displaced have sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon. “Lost in Lebanon”, a documentary shot by Sophia and Georgia Scott and screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, follows Sheikh Abdo and three others as they try to build a new life for themselves in Lebanon after fleeing the devastation in their homeland.
With a population of 4.4 million and the highest per capita number of refugees in the world, Lebanon has its own problems. In January 2015 the country ended its open door policy for Syrian refugees and implemented a number of restrictions upon them. Suddenly they needed special visas, proof of finances and proper documentation. Seventy-two per cent of Syrian babies born in Lebanon do not have birth certificates and risk becoming stateless.
It is against this ever-increasing Lebanese bureaucracy that Syrians attempt to put their lives back together. Mwafak, also featured in the production, is one of some 600,000 Syrians who have not registered with the UNHCR – he doesn’t want to be labelled as a refugee. Besides, at times it feels like there’s little point. Of the one million refugees registered in the country only 5,000 have successfully departed under resettlement programmes.
When he is not working on his sculptures Mwafak teaches art to children in Al-Jarahia refugee camp 15 kilometres from the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley. In a heartbreaking moment that brings home the fact that their childhood is being robbed of them, the camera catches his pupils rapping: “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.”
Nemr, who fled Syria to escape forced military recruitment, now volunteers as a teacher. “I wish people could return to school so we make scientists not terrorists,” he says. There could be as many as three or four generations of Syrian children who are illiterate, which will seriously affect not only the country’s ability to rebuild itself after the war, but the decisions these children take. Lack of opportunity has often been cited as a reason young men choose to become fighters.
It is to Shatila, the refugee camp built in 1948 for Palestinians, that the camera takes us to offer insight into the fourth individual featured in “Lost in Lebanon”. It’s “ugly”, “inhumane” and “no one should live here”, says Reem as she walks through the camp en route to her organisation. When Syrians fled the war they arrived at the camp and the number of residents doubled to 40,000 yet there is no electricity, no water and no services.
A recent report by UNICEF revealed that 2016 was the deadliest year for kids in Syria with the death of some 652 children. Reem confirms that the affect the fighting has had on children reaches beyond Syria itself when she describes seeing a kid throw himself off a roof. “Some of them witnessed ISIS [Daesh], barrel bombs, some army invasions. They are very traumatised,” she says. Later she speaks to a woman who doesn’t want to send her son to school because he’s been sexually abused.
“Lost in Lebanon” shows how as the war in Syria intensifies, Syrians are increasingly trapped both inside and outside their country and how their circumstances are getting worse, not better. It’s beautifully shot but full of despair. Speaking at a meeting chaired by Reem, one man sums up the depths of desperation when he says: “We can’t go back to Syria, we can’t renew our residency, we can’t leave by boat. Why don’t they just exterminate us and be done with it.”