‘Put yourself in their shoes,’ says Zahra Mackaoui, a British-Lebanese journalist who has been following the stories of refugees from Syria for five years, catching up with them as they move on restlessly, searching for a place to settle. ‘Ask yourself, what would I have done?’ That question echoed through her series of documentaries for the World Service as we heard from those who have been exiled by a war in which they have played no part except as victims. What would I have done?
In Beyond Borders (produced by Craig Templeton Smith), the open, frank honesty of Hani, Ayesha, Doaa Al Zamel and Fewaz gave us an opportunity to see deeper into their experiences. All of them have lost everything: the future they had once envisaged; the past, too, best forgotten. The outcome of the war in Syria is the biggest migration of people since the Partition of India, and it will be no less resonant through time.
Hani Al Moulia, now aged 20, fled with his family from Homs and was at first in a refugee camp in Lebanon. ‘We don’t do anything,’ he says of that time. ‘We don’t have repeated actions,’ by which he meant the normal routines of everyday life, going to school, to work, to shop. ‘We are just living,’ by which he meant ‘existing’. ‘When I left Syria, I left part of my personality.’ Hani’s eyesight is compromised by a genetic condition that leads to vision loss and yet he began taking photographs to record the experiences of the refugees in the camp. ‘The camera helped me to see things I wasn’t able to see before.’ One of his early photos is of his three brothers, their backs turned, walking away from the camera along a road in the camp. Sunlight shines ahead of them.
After several years his family made the radical decision to move on to Canada, to a prairie town in Saskatchewan where Hani has become an articulate spokesperson for his community, representing them on the National Youth Council. He delivered a TEDx talk you can see on YouTube. ‘I don’t like the word refugee,’ he tells Mackaoui. ‘Don’t call them refugees if you’re wanting them to integrate. I’m proud to be called Canadian and Syrian.’ His cousin Ayesha is less fortunate. She’s still stuck in a Lebanese camp with her three children. There’s no work for her husband and no state help as the number of Syrian refugees has steadily increased to more than one million while the total population of Lebanon is only five million. ‘I had a home but it was destroyed… I had a car. I had land too. Now we have nothing.’ Also stuck in Lebanon is Shahad whose shattered face made the headlines five years ago when her home in Syria was bombed and seven members of her family were killed including two of her brothers. Her mother was left with 26 pieces of shrapnel in her back. ‘My name is Shahad,’ she says in perfect English. ‘I am ten years old.’ She wants to become a teacher but her father is uncertain of the future.
In Germany, where in 2015 the Chancellor Angela Merkel provoked a political crisis by inviting in one million refugees from Syria, Mackaoui meets 49-year-old Fewaz whose family had a horrific time trying to reach Europe. His kids, he says, can speak German easily and his eldest son is determined to make a success of his life in Bremen. Fewaz is not so sure. ‘There are those who look down on us,’ he says. ‘You are a nobody who has arrived with nothing. And you want to live off the state at their expense.’ He’s angry that some of those who have come from Syria have made problems for Germany. His wife and daughters no longer wear the veil and he no longer fasts for Ramadan. ‘There is no real faith,’ he says. ‘There is only extremism.’
Perhaps the most remarkable story, though, belongs to Doaa Al Zamel, who wrote a book about her experiences of crossing the Mediterranean and spending four days floating in the sea struggling to keep herself alive and two young children who had been thrust into her arms by their desperate parents. She left Syria on the day after her father’s barber’s shop was bombed and settled temporarily with her family in Egypt. After three years Doaa and her fiancé had saved up enough to pay the smugglers to take them to Europe but they kept being told to change boat and were then attacked while still at sea by a group of men in another boat. ‘The look in their eyes I have never seen before,’ Doaa recalls. More than 500 refugees drowned in that one incident, including her fiancé.
Now she lives in a small town in Sweden with the survivors from her family. Like Hani she is determined to speak out, telling her story to alert the world to what is happening (Steven Spielberg has optioned her book). She knows, as does Hani, that no matter how well they do in their new lives and how much they try to forget the past it will resonate through the generations.