What is more tragic — a departure from your own country to escape an uncalled war or one’s involuntary struggle to enter a foreign land? Such predicaments hold the crux of the 2016 documentary Born in Syria directed by Hernan Zin to chronicle the lives of Syrian refugees amidst the ongoing civil war in Syria. The state of terror began in 2011 with protests to remove the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power, leading to armed violence and mass causalities in the subsequent years. The film focuses on the lives of people impacted by the conflict that was at its peak in 2015 compelling the countrymen to flee their lands.
Watch the Trailer of Born in Syria here:
Born in Syria | Summary and Analysis
Following the upturned lives of seven children, the documentary not only journeys on the uncertainty that shadows them but also raises various questions in political and social context regarding identity, fate, accommodation, and the unity of Europeans in the time of crisis. These children, belonging to different age groups, share their narratives to highlight the complexity of comprehending their situation and the endless struggle of bringing their life back to normal.
The film opens with a boat of refugees entering the borders of Greece with locals on the shore lending a helping hand in the best way possible. Women and children are prioritized for food and medical supplies due to their shortage. The long hours of journey in a compact setting with unpredictable currents of water are not the only challenges that many children naively assumed to have overcome successfully. The real struggle now began. With the dip in temperature and lack of proper shelter, people are unable to fathom their future course of action. They pick up their bags and trod on the unfamiliar road as if their only guide was the God who they believed in wholeheartedly. The documentary’s closing scene of the geographical distance that the families had covered through various modes of transport is astounding. Despite coming thousands of kilometers away from their homeland, they still couldn’t get rid of the darkness they intended to leave behind.
The sole question menacing each escapee is raised by a young girl crying for her father in the commencing scenes of the film: “where will we go?” Their arrival through the waters can be viewed as a new beginning for them, water symbolizing life, but it’s the same water that has thrown them from one uncertainty into another. Adapting to a foreign land is not a child’s play. The political barriers join the forces with linguistic impediments that provide no respite from the countless troubles. By delving into the lives of different characters intimately, the film attempts to draw the attention of the audience toward their grueling conditions of living.
Arasuli and Gaseem are two kids whose lives are stagnant since the day they arrived at the not-so-welcoming Hungary, living in camps with no proper aid to basic services. There are scenes that zoom into their conditions of living in ill-built camp tents on stations and borders where one sleeps on top of the other. As kids, we are taught to brush our teeth and bathe our body as the first thing in the morning but Gaseem’s powerful revelation of not having received a shower for a month conveys the unsaid and unimaginable life they are doomed to put up which also stands in opposition to his ambitions of pursuing higher studies in Germany.
Kais is a ten-year-old boy who is a victim of a gasoline bomb dropped over him, burning his body and leaving his vision poor. The damage to his brain resulted in partial memory loss that has transported him into a delusion of his dead parents coming back to take him from his uncle’s home. His extended family chooses to never disclose the bitter truth for fear of Kais’ suicidal tendencies. The young boy, aware of the political scenario, blames the Russian air forces for his miserable condition which is at a standpoint as he is still waiting for his surgery in Turkey.
The lack of medical attention given to the refugees coupled with their depleting economic resources connects Kais to Mohammed who lives with his father and brother in various camps before arriving in Athens. His mother is residing in Germany for her treatment and he wishes to see her. However, they are caught up in legislative and economic webs that assured nothing but long periods of waiting. Mohammed’s father is suffering from brucellosis and due to the dearth of proper amenities and highly qualified doctors in camps; he to date hasn’t received any proper medical treatment. Mohammed’s strong patriotic feelings for his country Syria are laid out through his art of poetry. His composition reflects the love he harbored for his land which has been tarnished by evil forces of violence demonstrated through his poignant drawing.
While Mohammed’s movement came to a halt, Hamude was transported to Austria from Hungary where a clear distinction is drawn by his innocent words: “In Hungary, they treated us badly. They didn’t give us any food or clothes. We were put in a zoo. But in Austria, they treated us better and they gave us food. They gave me this blue jacket and the scooter.” After leaving Austria, he lived with his uncle in Germany and enrolled in a German school. Learning a new language signifies hope for a new and better life which can be seen in his case. Compared to other kids in the documentary, Hamude is living a better quality of life if not a secure one.
Though he is separated from his younger brother on administrative grounds and deeply misses his family, it cannot be denied that he still has a roof over his head, which many kids desperately search for even now. It is notified towards the end that he has received the residency in Germany for three years and as a legal act, he can no more be separated from his brother in Aachen.
While the residency certificate unites the two brothers in the previous case, Jihan’s fight to get her mother and brothers to Germany from Lebanon is dissolved in paperwork and attorney meetings. Though she gets the residency for a year, she’ll still be unable to bring her family to Berlin. She is the only female teenager documented in the film who resolves to create a new and better life for herself and her family. She masks her emotional vulnerability through a strong and determined personality. There are times discussed when Jihan and her father couldn’t sleep and eat well due to economic restraints but that doesn’t hinder their efforts to dig up ways to unite with their family. Through Jihan’s journey, we witness how technology has been efficient in bridging the gap between territories as she was able to communicate with her mother occasionally. Her kickboxing class in Germany is emblematic of the freedom every woman deserves and aspires for but is denied in Syria. Though her migration to another country was under pleasant circumstances, it can be observed how it was traversing through social dictates as well.
Marwan is accompanied by his entire family who believed their only challenge was to cross the Syrian border safely via water travel. But the climax scenes reflect upon his attained maturity concerning life’s endless challenges and water travel is just the start. Their journey ends in Brussels after standing up in endless lines to receive the legal papers that would transport them to their desired destination. Belgium is presented as a welcoming country that not only provided proper shelter to its immigrants but also promises a better lifestyle. However, the seeming blissful life is undercut by legal and linguistic obstacles that hinder the families’ chances of renting a home. Their refugee status didn’t attract many owners to rent out their apartments to the family despite attaining a legal status to live in Brussels. Adding to the distress is the non-fluency in French that closes all doors to a job opportunity for his father. There are multiple incidents that emphasize the difficulty and bullying Marwan experiences from Belgian kids due to his foreign status in the starting months of his stay. But eventually, he befriends some boys and now lives in Brussels in a rented apartment with his family but his father is still unemployed.
There is an aerial shot of refugees walking on a narrow rail track in the middle of a vast land that is of particular interest. The track acts as a dividing line between the road and green fields. It is a powerful and impressive shot that foregrounds the in-betweenness of the people who are nostalgic for their lost home and life as well as not deemed worthy of acceptance from a few neighboring countries. This is evidenced in the treatment accorded by the Hungarian government to its refugees that involved months-long stranding and tear gas operations to prohibit any movements. The younger generation fails to understand the reasons causing an unwelcoming atmosphere in any country they reach.
The film has also carefully designed certain scenes that focus on the belongings people had to leave behind as well as the amount of waste generated during the exodus. A war not only destructs properties but lives too by the medium of separation and terror-stricken dreams to haunt kids. One is left with only questions concerning the accountability of the ruination. It is always the common man who has to bear the brunt of politics and power and the documentary scathingly critiques the absence of humanity that involves wars leaving children, as victims and survivors, with a nostalgic past and dreams for a better future.
The film with an 86-minute run is entirely documented in Arabic with the main cast involving Syrian children recounting their plight and belonging to different age brackets: Arasuli (12), Naseem (14), Kais (10), Mohammed (13), Hamude (8), Jihan (15), and Marwan (13). The screenplay is written by Jose F. Ortuno with a complimenting background score composed by Jean-Pierre Ensuque and Gabriel Yared. The editorial team comprises of Fatima De Los, Jose M. Moyano, and Dario Garcia who have brilliantly incorporated and connected various lives into the nexus of economic, social, political, and emotional crisis. The documentary has been sold to twenty-two territories with gross earnings of $1, 185 against the €500,000 budget, marking it as a failure at the box office but a social hit in its potent exposition of the injustice meted out to the survivors of the war.
By Stuti Goel