Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Documenting displacement: Ali's song, meeting Abdulrachman, and visiting camps in the Beqaa Valley

Documenting displacement: 
Ali's song, meeting Abdulrachman, and visiting camps in the Beqaa Valley 

It is easy to miss the empty spaces in Beirut. High rise apartment buildings are sprouting up across the skyline, forming a steadily growing concrete jungle. Wherever I am in the city, looking up, I see the open floors and ceilings of luxury apartments, empty spaces, potential homes, waiting to be filled. It is quite a contrast to looking down, where whole families can often be seen living in the streets.

I first started typing this blogpost as I was listening to my housemate, Saana, a Finnish journalist, taking fasha Arabic lessons from a Syrian friend in our living room. Majid recently arrived to Lebanon from Damascus after years of being detained by the Syrian regime. On hearing that the Islamic fundamentalist group ISIS had placed a price on his head, he decided that it was time to leave his country. Softly spoken, slight in build, with a gentle face, Majid looked more like a teacher than a resistance fighter. His fingers tapped delicately on Saana's laptop as he showed us a few photos from his suburb in Damascus, and told us a bit about the centers he worked with there, providing child friendly spaces for children in towns and cities across Syria. These are safe spaces where children can study, play and meet with adequate protection. 

This work is being carried out in Lebanon too, and in refugee camps throughout the Syrian diaspora touching Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. Not all children have access to these spaces though. The children who work on the streets of Beirut are a troubling example. 

When I met Sarah at the National Museum of Lebanon last weekend to continue our interviews with Syrian children here in Beirut, we did not have to wait long for our first interviewees of the day. Two boys approached us, selling pens. My bag and my room are slowly filling with chewing gum, pens, and tissues, the standard street fare children sell here. The two brothers were Syrian, their names Ali and Mohanned. When Sarah showed the older of the two boys, Ali, her microphone, his first reaction was to say ‘rani?’ which means, ‘sing?’. He then quite spontaneously sung a song for us, tilting his head back and forth to the lyrics like a superstar. You'll have to wait for the documentary to hear his debut performance, but I can assure you, it was very special.

Afterwards, he told us a bit about his life. His father had died in the war and his mother was sick with stomach illness. He has two big sisters, kamemu, like you, he said, pointing at us. It took us a while to work out where they lived as it sounded like Ali was saying they slept in Bsharre, which we knew to be a town in the northern mountains of Lebanon, hundreds of kilometers away. For a moment I wondered how they were commuting to Beirut to sell the pens, but Sarah soon worked it out: they were saying baeyn sherreh, which means 'between trees'. They were sleeping between trees, in the street.

Mohanned, who was clearly seven or eight years old, tried to convince us he was twenty, which earned his a scolding shhh from his big brother. Ali asked us how old we were and when I told him I was twenty-five, he asked me why I had grey hairs already? I was flattered by this nine-year old’s concern and told him I had no idea why. He looked baffled and did an impression of a little old lady tottering along with a walking stick. So I asked ‘enta bitishteril alhala?’ do you work as a hairdresser? Which he thought about for a moment, perhaps considering the profession, before smiling and shaking his head. 

Meanwhile, Mohanned was nursing a sore toothache. It is hard to walk away from these interviews because when we do, we walk away from the story, the lives, the tooth aches. When we glance back, we see them at work, leaning against the concrete bridges of busy underpasses, searching for cars stopping. Just last night a boy sat and spoke with us in another district of Beirut, Hamra, and for a moment we had a very real conversation in Arabic about Syria and how it rains in Belgium. Said collects garbage in Beirut and told us he was heading back to Syria the next day. The interviews often end with a warm handshake, a smile and a 'tcharaffnah', nice to meet you. When he left, he disappeared back into the night and his story continues. I realise that what we are capturing is just a glimpse into these lives and stories, which can be hard sometimes. 

When we stopped for a coffee in the Basta district of Beirut, a woman walked past and asked if she could have a bottle of water from the empty table behind us. A man nearby went out of his way to tell us, in English, 'she is not Lebanese', as though asking for a barely opened, almost full bottle of water is something a Lebanese person would never do. 'She is Syrian,' he said. This stigmatization of what and who is “Syrian” is something we see every day here. Even on my way to a meeting in the mountains south of Beirut, a taxi driver would not stop to ask a man we saw by the roadside for directions, despite being very lost. 'Howe sooriyan,' he said, by way of explanation. 'He is Syrian.' Spotting more men sitting by the side of the road, he repeated, one after one, 'howe sooriyan, howe sooriyan, howe sooriyan.' 

A young Syrian man served us our coffee, his name was Sami, and we told him about the project. He said he did not want to give an interview, but had friends who might be able to help. As fate would have it, one of these friends walked by our table later on, and the two friends hugged in greeting. We were introduced to Abdulrachman, a twenty-one year old here in Lebanon who was imprisoned in Syria for refusing to enlist in the army. Abdulrachman wanted to share his story and has introduced Sarah to his cousins, three women who are living in Beirut and working daily in refugee camps situated in Bar Elias in the Beqaa Valley, eastern Lebanon. We will go to Bar Elias tomorrow to see how the conditions for refugees in the camps compare to the conditions here in the city, and hopefully carry out interviews. 

Thanks for reading.

For previous posts on this project, please see Documenting displacement: starting the interviews in Daura, Beirut

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