The Za’atari refugee camp, seven miles from the Syrian border in Jordan, is home to 85,000 Syrian refugees. For a month last year, it was also home to two Americans, the first filmmakers the United Nations has ever allowed to set up a tent and live inside a camp.
“We wanted to immerse ourselves and try to understand that experience,” says Zach Ingrasci, who directed Salam Neighbor with Chris Temple. “That’s really what our film is about–it’s about humanizing refugees, who we often see and think about as statistics.”
Ingrasci and Temple call their production company an “impact studio,” and focus on both trying to deeply understand a problem and move viewers to action. In their last film, they moved to Guatemala and worked as beet farmers, learning what it was like to live on $1 a day.
After a year of wrestling through red tape with various agencies, they were in line with new refugees at the camp, picking up basic supplies like a tent, toothbrushes, and food.
“We were definitely nervous about trying something like this that had never been done before,” says Temple. “But when we arrived on that first day, within an hour of being there, we were playing cards and drinking tea with our neighbors. One of our neighbors, Abu Kamal, invited us over to his tent and immediately told us that being a good neighbor is fundamental in Islam.”
Not everything went smoothly–the local security force decided that they shouldn’t spend nights at the camp, so each evening, they had to travel to the nearby city of Mafraq. But they learned that there were even more refugees there. And they were able to go back to the camp each morning at 6am, spending all day there.
“It was incredible to be given that access,” Temple says. “Other journalists were allowed to be there two days a week, three hours a day.” By living in the camp, they were able to get to know refugees in a way that otherwise wouldn’t couldn’t have happened, and get into complicated conversations.
“There’s a moment in the film where we’re sitting together in our tent, with our neighbors, sharing tea and talking about how the world perceives us,” Ingrasci says. “And our neighbors are talking about how the world views them as terrorists and how in reality we’re all the same, we’re all humans. That’s this critical point where it breaks down barriers you might think there are between Americans and Syrian refugees.”
Though the film focuses on individual stories, it also talks about the scale of the refugee crisis: 1.4 million Syrian refugees have moved to Jordan, the equivalent of half of the population of Mexico suddenly moving to Indiana. Another 3.5 million live in countries like Lebanon and Turkey; nearly 6 million more are displaced inside Syria. (The U.S., by contrast, has only taken in 250 refugees).
As much as this represents a major challenge–refugees at the Za’atari camp will be stuck there for an average of 17 years–it also points to the fact that most Syrians don’t want to live in violence.
“The media is constantly talking about the violence and the extremists in the Middle East,” says Salam Darwaza, co-founder of 1001 Media, one of the film’s producers. “That happens to be such a small number compared to the 10 million who have walked away from war and chosen peace. Who’s talking about that?”
The next step for the filmmakers is trying to drum up support for the the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and USA for UNHCR to continue their work in the camps.
“We spent a month with the incredible people you see in the film,” says Ingrasci. “At the end of the day, they are the solution to this crisis–they are the ones who will rebuild Syria, and productively add to the countries that take them in. But if we don’t step up now as an international community to support this refugee population, we really do stand a chance to lose the potential here. There’s a real urgency to it.”
Salam Neighborpremieres June 20 at the AFI Documentary Festival.