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MONDAY, 21 APR 2014
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A thousand days away from home
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BEIRUT: Thursday marks 1,000 days since Syrians began fleeing the violence in their country, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Like refugees the world over, Syria’s displaced are often reduced to statistics. “Days Away from Home,” a website launched earlier this month, seeks to tell the stories of some of the individuals that make up this growing number, through a series of videos and photo essays created by filmmaker Katia Saleh.

Known in Lebanon for her award-winning Web drama series “Shankaboot,” Saleh is the founder and director of Beirut-based production company Batoota films, which specializes in Internet content and has produced humanitarian documentaries for a number of international organizations. Her new project is funded by the EU and UNHCR.

For “Days Away from Home,” Saleh decided to follow one family for six months, showing their daily routine and the challenges they face. A series of photo essays, collated into videos and accompanied by audio interviews with the subjects, provide alternative perspectives, focusing on a day in the life of various Syrian professionals struggling to transfer their skills to Lebanon’s oversaturated job market.

The website, which can be viewed in English or Arabic, displays a number in the top left corner, keeping track of the days that have elapsed since March 25, 2011, when protests that had begun in Deraa spread nationwide, eliciting a brutal crackdown by regime forces and triggering the onset of the refugee influx into neighboring countries.

“I did not want to elaborate on the image [of refugees] that already exists on the news and in daily reportage,” Saleh says. “I didn’t want people to feel sympathy for them, to go, ‘Oh, haram,’ as we usually do when we see a kid barefoot, or whatever. I wanted to empower the Syrians and try to make people in general, especially the Lebanese, feel that they can identify with them.

“So for the photos essays,” she continues, “I tried to look for people who have been struggling recently to sustain their professions or to keep on working. Not the flower sellers or the beggars, but ... a musician, or a cook, or a dancer – people who had a profession and who are trying to keep it.”

Four of the nine photo essays have been uploaded to the site to date. One tells the story of musician and painter Zimo, whose fledgling artistic career in Aleppo was cut short by the conflict. He came to Beirut to stay with two Lebanese friends, intending to return when things calmed down. While he was away, however, his Aleppo studio was robbed and all his equipment stolen.

Zimo now shares an apartment in Gemmayzeh. Having bought a new laptop, he is working on producing an electronic album, has given a concert at Metro al-Madina and been offered a solo show in a Beirut gallery. He expresses gratitude for the warm welcome afforded to him and other displaced Syrians by the Lebanese. In spite of this, he says, he would do anything to be able to go back to Syria.

It’s a sentiment that comes up again and again. Saleh says every single subject she interviewed expressed a longing to return home.

Umm Abdo’s family is no different. Having spent all their savings during their first weeks in Lebanon, she, her husband, sister, mother and five children live together in a one-bedroom flat in Sabra. Resolutely cheerful about their struggle to make ends meet, they nevertheless dream of the life they left behind.

Umm Abdo’s husband works in a factory, but in order to supplement his meager income to afford food and the LL400,000 monthly rent, he brings home thousands of cardboard boxes, which the whole family work to fold. Every thousand boxes folded earn them an extra $10.

“It was hard to find a family,” Saleh says of the filming process, “because I wanted more or less ‘a happy family.’ ... These are working class, very underprivileged people. ... They’re trying to survive, and simple things give them pleasure.

“You ask the kids how they’re passing their time, and they say, ‘We go shopping with mom. We clean the house. We go to the neighbors. And we have fun.’ ... They’re always smiling and that’s what I was looking for – people who haven’t lost hope completely. It’s their resilience that keeps them going.”

Striving to communicate the family’s good humor and positive attitude, Saleh does not focus only on the hardships they face but creates playful episodes ... such as one in which viewers witness the family engaged in a competition to see who can fold the most boxes in a minute.

Another episode focuses on the out-of-school children’s aspirations. The eldest daughter would like to be a hairdresser, she says. The middle one wants to be a model on TV, while the youngest would like to be a dentist. Nine-year-old Abdo, who spends his days wandering the streets, says he wants to work in a computer shop.

Part of the aim of the Web documentary was to highlight the generosity of the Lebanese hosts and the way many Syrians are integrating into society.

“Obviously the Lebanese are suffering,” Saleh says, “at least some of them. Some of them are not very happy at all. So it was a way to show that [the Syrians] are not a burden or a stone on our chest.

“They’re not all beggars – they [have] talents as well. It could be any artist, or any businessman, or any housewife. ... It could be you.”

To view the “Days Away From Home” Web series please visit daysawayfromhome.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 19, 2013, on page 16.
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