They left everything to save their lives. Now these Syrians are rebuilding. Again.


A refugee camp is not a home. Except when it has to be.

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It was March 2011, the middle of the Arab Spring, when 15 teenage boys were arrested in the Syrian city of Daraa for spray-painting anti-government graffiti on walls.

Public outrage followed. Then protests. Then a military crackdown by the government succeeded, inevitably, by unending civil war.

Destroyed tanks in the Syrian city of Azaz. Image by Christiaan Triebert/Flickr.

Since the fighting began, an estimated 470,000 people have lost their lives. Millions more have fled. By current numbers, an estimated 4.8 million citizens have already left Syria, many with little more than the clothes on their backs.

On July 28, 2012, the Jordanian government opened a Syrian refugee camp a few miles east of the city of Mafraq.

It was never supposed to be permanent.

The Za’atari refugee camp is the second largest of its kind in the world and, if it were an official city, it would at present be in the top 10 for largest population in Jordan.

Image by UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr.

The site is three miles wide, separated into 12 districts housing an estimated 79,000 residents. It includes at least 30,000 shelters, three hospitals, nine schools, some mosques, a theater, and a sports center. There’s an outdoor market of 3,000 shops and stalls where people can buy groceries, home goods and provisions. Residents called the market the “Champs Elysees,” a cheeky reference to Paris’ famously tony shopping district. Za’atari even has its own Twitter account, showing mostly cheerful vignettes of daily life.

Within the barbed wire-topped fences surrounding the camp, there is water, power, humanitarian aid, and (relative) safety.

But is it — and could it ever be — a home?

That’s what the filmmakers of “After Spring,” a documentary showing at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, wanted to find out.

Raghad and Ibahim, two refugee brothers featured in the documentary. Image via “After Spring.”

This new film follows two refugee families living in Za’atari along with an aid worker trying to keep the camp running smoothly as they collectively grapple with war, displacement, and figuring out “the story of what happens next.” The Hollywood Reporter describes the film’s main characters:

“The film focuses on several of the camp’s residents, including Abu Ibrahim, a former construction worker, and his two teenage children, Raghad, age 13, and Ibahim, age 14, who must somehow find a way to live normal teenage lives in their artificial environment. Then there’s Mohammed, who deeply misses his native country; he and his wife Amani have five young children, two of them born in the camp, with a sixth on the way. We’re also introduced to Kilian Kleinschmidt, the camp’s indomitable manager who clearly takes a hands-on approach to overseeing his charges and who laments that many of the younger residents are foregoing an education and heading down a troubled path.”

Since this documentary was filmed, the Syrian civil war entered its sixth year. There is no end in sight.

Meanwhile, millions of other refugees have fled violence or poverty in their home countries, settling in temporary camps not unlike Za’atari. The Calais “Jungle” in northeastern France is home to 5,400 refugees, including 137 Syrian households. Ethiopia’s five Dadaab refugee camps house more than 328,000 Somali people.

Children in Za’atari carry empty jugs for water. Image by UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr.

In each of these camps are people who’ve fled homes that were no longer safe. They’re all looking for an answer to what happens next. But as friendly borders close, political tensions rise, and refugee numbers continue to grow, it’s harder than ever to know what that might be.

Watch the trailer for “After Spring” here:

“After Spring” is being shown at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of its Viewpoints section. Films in Viewpoints take on social issues, zooming in on topics that sometimes feel a little far away from some people but are incredibly close to others.

Thumbnail image by Matthias Somm/Flickr.

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