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‘This is Exile’ – Q&A with Director Mani Benchelah

From war-torn homes to near permanent refugee status, Syrian children in Lebanon are living in a situation of never-ending insecurity, award-winning film-maker Mani Benchelah tells Syria Deeply. His film provides an intimate view into the lives of a generation whose world has been turned upside down.

Written by Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes

“It’s a lot of humiliation … So much sickness. Exile has killed us,” says the young narrator at end of the trailer for Mani Banchelah’s new film.

“This is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees,” the latest film by Emmy-award-winning director Mani Benchelah, takes an intimate look into the lives of children who, along with their families, have fled the violence in Syria to neighboring Lebanon.

Told in their own voices, the film allows these children, who have already at such a young age witnessed violence and atrocities the likes of which most will never see, to tell their own story.

The film is a beautifully crafted insight into the human cost of Syria’s ongoing civil war, which has forced more than four million people – half of whom are children – to flee the country.

The U.N.’s refugee agency estimates there are more than one million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon – a number equal to a quarter of the country’s population – but the number is likely closer to more than 1.5 million.

Nearly five years into the conflict, the fighting in Syria only seems to be getting worse, and as fall quickly turns to winter across the Middle East, many of the children featured in Benchelah’s film are facing a chilly winter in tents in unheated buildings across Lebanon.

“This is not a very optimistic film,” Benchelah told Syria Deeply. “Most refugees flee the war with the idea that it will be a temporary measure, that they’ll return home as soon as possible, but as the war seems to be never-ending, the prospect becomes more and more remote … The temporary refugee status becomes permanent.”

Produced in partnership with Make Productions and Save the Children, Benchelah’s film premiered in June at the 2015 WARM festival in Sarajevo before recently screening in October at the Glasgow Human Rights Film Festival, where it won an International Jury Prize.

Syria Deeply caught up with Benchelah last weekend before his film screened at the annual BBC Arabic Film Festival.

Syria Deeply: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to make this film?

Mani Benchelah: I’m a film-maker now. I used to live in Syria, years ago, in the 90s. I went there to formally study Arabic. So, in 2011, when the uprising started, I decided I wanted to find a way to get in and to report from where the uprising was taking place. I was originally working as an independent photographer. After a few weeks in Damascus, I found a way to sneak into Homs and to report on the ongoing repression and civil uprising. That was in October and November of 2011.

I went back to Syria in February 2012 when the fighting started to be much more intense. I was still working as a photographer – for Le Monde this time – but I also started to film. I stayed a month there, in Homs again and some surrounding areas, documenting what was going on. That led to some new photography work and a film, entitled The Horror of Homs (UK Channel 4). I continued working as a filmmaker in Syria after that. I kept coming back – mainly to the Homs area.

At a certain point though, it became impossible for me to get back in. Too many of my colleagues were getting killed and kidnapped. This is about the same time the refugee crisis started to become a pressing issue in the surrounding countries, and obviously for the Syrian population. When I was in Syria, interviewing children was never a main focus of mine, but it was an underlying issue that kept coming back. It became clear pretty quickly that children were a huge chunk of the refugee population. And, because obviously they will become the new ruling generation some day, it’s important to focus on what’s happening to them and what their prospects for the future are. Around this time, I was contacted by Save the Children to make a film about children – I chose Lebanon because of the numbers and the pressing issues for refugees there. So yeah, I guess that’s how it all started.

Syria Deeply: So could you give us a brief overview of your film?

Mani Benchelah: The film is a series of portraits of Syrian children living in Lebanon as refugees, who came with their families. I followed them throughout a year, coming back to Lebanon every three months or so, following the evolution of their lives. It’s filmed in various areas in Lebanon, some in the southern suburbs of Beirut, like the Shatila refugee camp, some in the Beqaa Valley, some in Arsal, other parts are in Tripoli. The children were all of different ages, from about 7 to 16 or so.

Initially, as I met them in early 2014, the idea of returning home to Syria was still realistic in their mind. Many of them had just arrived over the previous year, most had only been there for a few months or weeks even. They thought they were there [in Lebanon] momentarily, and then they would soon head home. But as the year passed and months went by, the prospect of going home became more and more remote, and the difficulties of having to adapt to this new reality started to become their reality.

The film really isn’t very optimistic. Most refugees flee the war with the idea that it will be a temporary measure they must take in order to find shelter from the violence and that they’ll return home as soon as possible, but as the war seems to be never-ending, this prospect becomes more and more remote. This is a general reality for most refugees – not just Syrians, actually. Most of them never return home, and often end up in some kind of limbo situation as refugees for years and years. The temporary refugee status becomes permanent.

And when we think of refugees in Lebanon, I mean obviously you can’t help but think about the Palestinians, who’ve been there for over 60 years. They, too, left home with this same idea – that they’d return home sooner rather than later. Camps made of tents become neighborhoods, and they start pouring concrete and they become new parts of the cities, like Shatila and Sabra. It’s the same in Pakistan for the Afghani refugee population that has been living there for years and years now, and the same in Africa for refugee populations that cross a border and five years later, 10 years later, they are still there.

Syria Deeply: So in terms of your year or so of experience with the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon, what are the largest issues they are facing?

Mani Benchelah: I mean, I focused on the children, so for them, the main issue is education and access to health. And obviously, just being able to provide a stable environment and adequate food. Mostly though, it’s access to education and access to health. It’s very complicated for Syrian children. Even if the Lebanese authorities, with the help of the U.N., have launched programs, they’re only able to reach a small percentage of the kids.

And many many kids are dropping out of school. They’re impoverished. Their families have no income. They need the teenagers to start working. Many of the kids I was following had to drop out of school to help support their families over the year I spent with them. Others simply had no access to schools because they were too far from a school or they weren’t living in a refugee camp, and even the schools in the camps weren’t proper schools.

Syria Deeply: Over the year you spent, is there any particular moment that stuck with you as an explicative

Mani Benchelah: Every child I followed highlights an aspect of the overall plight. For example, one of the young teenagers I was following had to drop out of school despite his deep desire to learn, to continue studying and to someday go to college. It was a tipping moment when he realized he really couldn’t continue learning. It was, for me, a moment indicative of so many other Syrian children who simply cannot continue their education.

For others, the situation in Lebanon itself was the story. They fled violence in Syria to find safety in Lebanon, and after months living in a somewhat more stable and peaceful situation, the violence found them again. Militants connected to ISIS crossed the Lebanese border into the city of Arsal in 2014 while I was working there, so there were clashes between the militants, Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, and for the children I was following, the war had started again. They couldn’t escape. The psychological trauma they’d lived with in Syria started to reappear. It is a never-ending insecurity they are living with. They are children, so they don’t differentiate between who is who – it’s just another situation of an armed man that keeps on following them and trying to kill them. Or like [President] Bashar al-Assad is like some kind of monster man who is following them…like the Boogie Man or something.

One of the children had the chance to relocate to Europe with her family, and was able to start a new life in Switzerland. She’s among the very, very few who’ve been granted relocation through UNHCR [the U.N.’s refugee agency]. So, at least for her, her prospects for the future were much more optimistic. She was very optimistic when she arrived in Switzerland and realized that she had turned a page and that Syria was completely behind her. But her story is only indicative of a very small minority of the Syrian refugees. It re-emphasizes how grim the prospects are for most Syrians in Lebanon.

Syria Deeply: From where you stand, what is the most pressing issue facing the global community when it comes to Syrian refugees?

Mani Benchelah: More countries should be willing to take in refugees. In terms of the girl I just mentioned who managed to make it to Switzerland with her family, the only reason they were granted relocation is because she had been paralyzed after being hit by shrapnel while she and her family still lived in Syria. There are many kids who have similar cases that haven’t been granted the same opportunity. There should be more legal ways specifically for those refugees who are in such a vulnerable situation, particularly so that they’re not forced to make the journey illegally. I was in Greece less than a month ago, and you keep on seeing refugees who you would hope could be granted asylum or at least have their case considered. These are families traveling with handicapped kids … but if you look at the numbers of refugees compared with the number of actual relocations, it’s nothing. If you look at the number of asylum seekers most states in Europe and in the Gulf are taking, the gap is enormous. There are literally millions living in this limbo type of situation, and winter is coming.

Top image: Syrian refugee Khitam, 21, holds her 18-month-old daughter Reeham inside her tent at a Syrian refugee camp in the town of Deir Zanoun in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

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