Aphra Evans is teaching English and Maths to Syrian refugee children at a school in Beirut and has started a new project with filmmaker Shyam Jones helping the children document their experiences.
Lebanon doesn’t make the headlines in the same way as Syria, but instead quietly bears the brunt of the refugee crisis caused by its conflict. A quarter of the size of Switzerland, it’s home to more than one million refugees from Syria and 450,000 from Palestine. One in three is a refugee.
The resulting strain on the nation’s infrastructure is felt by each inhabitant every day when the mains electricity cuts out and private generators must be switched on. But such inconveniences pale in comparison to living in any of the refugee camps scattered across the country. In Shatila, a slum in south Beirut, the water is too saline to drink, exposed wiring weaves overhead, and rival political factions from across the splintered spectrum live in dangerously close proximity. The camp originally formed when the Palestinians fled what became Israel, but now it has doubled in size and rents are rising as Syrians pour in from the east. Windowless floors are hastily built atop existing breeze block towers that the camp inhabitants call home.
I nonetheless found myself surrounded by happy, energetic and enthusiastic children when I started teaching English and Maths at a school for Shatila’s young. Often, as laughter rang in the school corridors, I could forget where they came from and what they’d been through. We made friends quickly despite the language barrier, or perhaps because of it. It’s funny to watch someone gesture wildly and repeat themselves louder in the hope of being understood. Run by the fantastic NGO SB OverSeas, the school is called Bokra Ahla which means ‘a better tomorrow’ in Arabic.
With food, a roof, and two changes of clothes, the kids had everything they technically needed – but little beyond that. That’s why they got so excited when I let them listen to music on my headphones, why it was a treat for them to fiddle with my overpriced smartphone, and why they loved seeing the photos and videos taken of them during class. Technology represented something beyond the purely basic, the necessary. So did acting up in front of the camera. And this was what sparked the idea for The Refugee Film Project.
My filmmaker friend Shyam and I started running a six-week filmmaking course at the school for children. We’ve made slo-mo footage of popping water balloons, filmed some very silly interviews, and turned the floor into lava with a green screen. In the process, they became familiarised with the kit and honed their skills in zooming, manual focusing and panning. We’ll soon progress to short films with simple three-part narratives, before finally thinking about a script for a longer one. With enough storyboarding and rehearsals, we reckon the final products will be pretty good.
For me, it matters that the kids are behind the camera as well as in front of it. The pages of European media are oversaturated with photos of distraught Syrian children covered in a thin layer of dust. All too often, we see these children solely through a Western lens, and that belies their resilience and determination in the face of adversity; it belies the fact that despite trauma and displacement, they come to school every day with smiles on their faces. Nor do the photos published in newspapers hint at how long their ordeal will last, starting from that very moment when their home collapses under the fury of a bomb. We want to introduce Europe to the innocent children they’re closing their doors to. In the wake of the demise of the Dubs Amendment, nothing is more important.
Read more: What you can to to help Bristol’s refugees