by Aislinn McNiece
Media coverage of the Syrian crisis paints a sordid picture of violence and civil war in the region and the fear that they cause. Efforts to help are hindered by a negative image of refugees in the Western world — so several humanitarian groups and individuals have made it their mission to remind the world that each refugee has a human story.
Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan was joined by David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Melanne Verveer, Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, to present a screening of the film Salam Neighbor, a documentary offering an up-close look at individuals in a Syrian refugee camp.
Her Majesty Queen Rania, a passionate advocate for youth education in Jordan and cross-cultural acceptance worldwide, delivered remarks discussing Jordan’s role in the Syrian refugee crisis, praising her nation for opening their homes and their hearts to refugees.
“What you’ll see is that beyond headlines, behind the labels, are people that every one of you can relate to,” said Queen Rania. “Parents and children. Teachers and students. Neighbors and families and friends. Human beings, with human ambitions, human emotions, and human needs. People to befriend, not to be feared.”
She praised the enterprising determination of the people of the Za’atari refugee camp, where the documentary was filmed. Jordan has taken in over 1.4 million Syrian refugees in the past four years—the equivalent to the U.S. taking in half of Mexico’s population—and 85,000 of them currently reside in Za’atari, the biggest refugee camp in Jordan.
Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, the two American filmmakers behind Salam Neighbor, moved into the Za’atari refugee camp for a month to get to know some of these Syrian refugees and share their stories.
“Here there is a sense of drive and determination to remember that each of those 60 million people [displaced worldwide] is an individual story,” said Miliband before the screening. “I hope that the humanity of those you see in the film helps to bring out the humanity in you to support them.”
At its core, the documentary is a humanitarian effort in itself, challenging the way we look at humanitarian aid and crisis response, as filmmaker Temple shared in a panel discussion led by Ambassador Verveer following the screening. Verveer sat down with Temple and his co-director, Ingrasci, both co-founders of Living on One, and Salam Darwaza and Mohab Khattab, co-producers of Salam Neighbor and co-founders at 1001 Media. Salam Neighbor is a product of the “East Meets West” partnership between Living on One, a social impact film studio, and 1001 Media, a production studio where American and Arab filmmakers work together to challenge negative stereotypes of the Arab world.
Ingrasci attributed their inspiration for the project to frustration that the media portrayal of Syrian refugees didn’t align with the story Darwaza, as the daughter of Palestinian refugees, knew to be true. As the team worked to challenge this image and change the conversation, Temple and Ingrasci became deeply connected to the issue as well.
“What is so hard about being a [Syrian] refugee is so many of your connections are still in Syria—everyone has family back in Syria—and so they’re kind of sitting on the edge between two worlds, and they’re not really in either one of them right now,” said Ingrasci.
Temple explained that when most people think of crisis response, they don’t tend to think of the long-term; instead, they turn to food, shelter, blankets — basic necessities for a short-term solution. “At what point,” Temple asked, “do you get to rebuild your life?”
A critical part of rebuilding is the ability to work, which Queen Rania discussed prior to the screening when describing the special economic zones implemented in Jordanian refugee camps to allow refugees to earn a living in any way they can. Ingrasci and Ambassador Verveer also discussed the issue of refugees working.
“You can see how entrepreneurial these people are, the women certainly, and they could find a livelihood because of the kinds of projects that are organized within these [Women’s Centers at refugee camps]. They don’t know when or how long until they’ll go home, but to be able to move into a livelihood, this said to them: you are somebody, you can do something, you can earn income for what you do. And that, I think, over time begins to ease the transition. Employment, the ability to work in some way, is a very big part of the healing and is also a big part of the future,” said Verveer.
One of the women in the film, Um Ali, sells the crafts she makes from plastic bags that she shreds and weaves. At one point in the film, she says, “Working gives me value. Women have value. Women are equal to men.”
Ingrasci commented on Um Ali’s experience, discussing his own surprise that in the midst of such a crisis, both Um Ali and her husband could change the way they think about women and women’s roles. As Ingrasci said, “Within crisis, there can be opportunity. There’s nothing more powerful than if you can not only rebuild your life but [also] progress.”
And, for all that these refugees are doing, he and the rest of the humanitarians at the screening hope that other people can get involved and do something too.
“While so much of the coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis looks at statistics, it is critical to remember the people and families behind the numbers who are living in truly unimaginable circumstances,” said Miliband. “This film is important because it elevates the voices and stories of refugees and showcases their remarkable resilience as they work to rebuild their lives in the face of uncertainty.”