'Lost in Lebanon' filmmakers speak of Syrian refugees' despair
Though it had once flung its doors open, the 2015 residency laws passed by Lebanon's embattled government inevitably wreaked uncertainty and fear among the Syrian refugees it hosted. Now many stay indoors fearing arrest on the streets.
Film directors and sisters Sophia Scott and Georgia Scott speak to The New Arab about their latest film, Lost in Lebanon, which focus on the medley of hope and horror afflicting Syrian refugees in the neighbouring country.
For the directorial duo, whose past work included an acclaimed account of survival in the post-war era of Bosnia, the resilience of Syria's refugees was one theme particularly eye-opening.
"All the characters in the film have hopes and aspirations for the future, despite their current state," Sophia Scott tells The New Arab.
"They say that their dreams are broken, but they don't give up, they are still searching and trying to make a better life for them and their families."
In telling the tale of optimism amid despair, the filmmakers chose to focus on four central protagonists - each a refugee whose journey encapsulates the relentless uncertainty that the life of a refugee holds.
Nineteen-year-old Nemr stands on a hilltop in northern Lebanon. Before him lie the rugged borderlands of Syria. Yet despite being almost at touching distance, he is farther from home than ever before.
"There are Syrian villages on one side, and Lebanese on the other. It's near and it's far at the same time," Nemr said solemnly. "It is near in distance, but far from the mind. How could you possibly go? There's a barrier."
Nemr was one of the thousands of refugees who fled to Lebanon to escape forced military conscription into the ranks of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian army.
Left behind were his mother and younger siblings whom he is never certain to see again.
Yet Nemr's thirst to find hope in the bleakness around him captured Sophia and Georgina.
"The fact that they don't give up is inspiring. They really want to stay close to their country, with hope of returning, despite the difficult time they face," Sophia says.
|Nemr fled to Lebanon to escape forced military conscription [GroundTruth Productions]|
While the onslaught of the Syrian Civil War forms the backdrop of the plight of Syrian refugees, Lost in Lebanon brings to attention new ordeals facing refugees in Lebanon after new regulations regarding Syrian residency rights were passed.
Since 2011, the Syrian crisis has seen more 600,000 people killed and 12 million people forced out of their homes in one of largest displacements of people since the Second World War.
In that time, more than 1.1 million Syrians sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon. With an open-door policy, the country initially welcomed many with open arms, allowing refugees to enter without a visa and to renew residence cards almost free of charge.
Yet as the crisis in Syria continued to unfold, refugees came to make up almost a fifth of the population. Lebanon now has highest refugee per capita rate in the world.
Under local pressure, in January 2015 the Lebanese government passed rules that required Syrians to renew their residency permits with much stricter conditions. The new law inevitably rendered many illegal.
Citing security concerns, several local municipalities began curfews and crack-downs against Syrian refugees.
Today, an estimated 70 percent of refugees in Lebanon lack legal status, which among other problems limits their ability to work, access education and healthcare, or simply move freely without fear of being apprehended.
While focusing on the consequences of the residency laws, the Scott sisters noted the magnitude of the crises faced by the government.
"We are not critical of the Lebanese. We understand that they have had conflict and problems in the past. It was unfortunate that they passed the residency law because they were overwhelmed with the amount of Syrian refugees coming in," Georgia Scott says.
"So as the Lebanese government sees the war in Syria is continuing with no end in sight, and that the pressure was mounting, so they pushed this visa law."
|Nemr's thirst to find a glimmer of hope in the bleakness around him capture Sophia and Georgina [GroundTruth Productions]|
Like other protagonists in Lost in Lebanon, Nemr had his residency extension application rejected.
"When I was talking to Nemr, he said my dream is to feel safe and walk freely without being afraid of my nationality," Georgia says.
Having escaped the horrors of war, the Scott sisters said uncertainty fostered by being illegal residents has become a new dominating fear for the refugees.
"For Nimer, he couldn't live with the fact that he had no legal status. He had become to enclosed in fear, he was so worried about being arrested living without legal status in the country," Georgia says.
Forced from their homes and now cast illegal, the Scott sisters tell a harrowing account of the mental pressures afflicting many of the refugees leading to tragic ends.
"As the pressure mounted the mental state deteriorated a lot. One man we knew in Beirut, he was a contemporary dancer, he was healthy and fit. A year later we met him again he was on drugs. He ended up jumping off a building," Sophia says.
"It was like a prison for them, in which they are confined. It becomes very difficult to plan for the future in that state."
The filmmakers see Lost in Lebanon as constituting one film in a longer trilogy of works, beginning in Bosnia and ending in another conflict-ridden region.
In telling the account of Syrian refugees they sought to inform both the public and policy makers, by presenting dignified personal stories of those much maligned and demeaned.
"These are people who want to stay in their country but were forced to flee," says Georgia Scott.
Lost in Lebanon premieres in London on 12 March as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.