“Beyond Borders”.... Zahra’s journey to tell the story beyond the headlines
In June 2019, the BBC broadcast ‘Beyond Borders’ , a series by British-Lebanese filmmaker, and MCJN mentor, Zahra Mackaoui, in which she reflected on her five years of covering the Syrian refugee crisis. Revisiting this story wasn't easy, as both Zahra and the refugees had to relive painful memories. But as the world’s attention had moved away from the refugee crisis, individual stories of both pain and hope still need to be told.
So much had changed since I first began documenting the refugee crisis in 2013 and I felt this was not reflected in the work I was producing
I’d first begun working on the Syrian refugee crisis in early 2013, on what was ostensibly a 6-onth contract as a Video Journalist for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). My remit was to document the situation in the refugee camps across the Middle East. But as the scale of the crisis became clear and millions began to stream across the borders to neighbouring countries, I was asked to stay with UNHCR for a full year, based out of Beirut. Little did I know, back then, that the Syrian refugee crisis would come to consume my life for another four years, as I followed the trail of exile across the world.
During that time, I had the opportunity to work across a wide variety of formats, first for UNHCR and then as a freelance producer for different media outlets. By 2018, I’d produced a series/short documentary, a Virtual Reality project that continues to tour today, and I also collaborated on a book, the rights to which have been optioned for a feature film.
But just as enriching as this was, I felt frustrated by the disparate nature of these different formats and I yearned for the opportunity to bring all the stories together. So much had changed since I first began documenting the refugee crisis in 2013 and I felt this was not reflected in the work I was producing. There were families that I had filmed in the early days of the conflict whose situation had changed quite dramatically and I wanted to revisit them. The world’s reaction to the crisis had also undergone huge shifts, and the political ramifications were becoming apparent with the rise of populism across Europe.
By then, I had also been listening to a lot of radio podcasts, and I wanted to work on a new format. So in 2017, I approached a former commissioner at the BBC World Service Radio with the first draft of my pitch. Over a few weeks, via email and phone, he helped me shape the idea into a documentary and guided me through the commissioning process. He was incredibly generous with his time, and his advice was invaluable, especially as I had never presented a radio series. When he felt the pitch was ready, he introduced me to the BBC commissioners, and they invited me to present the series in person.
It took another five months before the final format of the series was agreed, both in terms of the style, the number of episodes and the families that would be featured. Deciding on the final protagonists was not an easy task for me, as there were so many inspiring people that I’d met over five years of reporting. They had become a part of my life and I’d come to value their friendship. I’d also gone to great efforts to keep in touch with them but there were times when they’d disappear and I’d be consumed with worry. Suddenly, without warning, their mobile number would stop working and it would take months to track them down. Fortunately, I’d developed an extended network of contacts within the Syrian refugee diaspora and, eventually, I’d find them again. It was such a relief to hear their voices again and know that they were fine.
When I contacted the families in the summer of 2018, not all of them reciprocated my enthusiasm. For the families still stuck in limbo in Lebanon, there was even greater despair about their situation and cynicism about the way they were being represented in the media. The family of a young Syrian girl, Shahad, whom I’d met in 2013, wanted to know how they would benefit from being interviewed again when their living situation had become even more precarious. Ayisha, another young woman living in a camp in the Bekaa valley, was also concerned that she would be deported back to Syria any day. Knowing that most of her family had been resettled in Canada made it even harder for her to accept her situation, and she wanted to know if the interview would help her to get resettled in Canada.
The family of a young Syrian girl, Shahad, wanted to know how they would benefit from being interviewed again when their living situation had become even more precarious
I could not provide any guarantees that the interviews would lead to any changes. As the time approached to travel, I had many conversations with both families to explain why I believed it was important for people to hear what they had to say. They agreed because of the trust that had been established between us over the years.
I was more surprised by the lukewarm response I got from Rafi, a young Syrian who had made it to Europe. I’d met Rafi in Calais in 2014 and, six months later, I had received a message from him telling me that he’d made it to the UK in the back of a truck. Over the next year or two, we stayed in touch and I followed his progress as he moved from one city to another. In 2016, I discovered that he was living in a small village close to my mother in the British Midlands and I went to visit him. He was struggling to adapt and hadn’t been able to access English classes, which he needed to get a certificate and resume his university studies.
When I told him that the series was going ahead, he said he no longer wanted to be interviewed. He didn’t want to revisit his time in Syria, nor his journey, nor did he want to be associated with the “refugee” label anymore. He was angry about the overt racism towards refugees in the British tabloids and wanted to know how this series could make any difference. Trying to combat negative stereotypes, he told me, was not a battle he had the energy to fight. Eventually, Rafi agreed to take part and he told me it was because he had faith in me, both as a journalist and a friend. In the end, he didn’t make it to the final cut and when I called him to explain why he understood. We’re still in touch today and I’m happy to say that Rafi will soon resume his university degree.
During the making of the series, I faced my own challenges as well. By the time the BBC had given this project the green light, I had spent a year away from covering the Syrian refugee crisis. I needed this time and emotional distance, especially after 5 years of witnessing suffering on such a vast scale. Now that I was about to embark on a production that could take 2-3 months, I tried to prepare myself emotionally by reaching out to colleagues and friends for support. Yet, amidst the despair, anger and frustration of witnessing the harsh reality still experienced by so many Syrian refugees, there were also moments of real joy. I remembered the warmth and generosity that had drawn me to the families in the first place. And during my trips to visit families who had resettled in the West, it was heart-warming to see how the younger generations had integrated into their new lives.
during my trips to visit families who had resettled in the West, it was heart-warming to see how the younger generations had integrated into their new lives
I’m still engaged with the Syrian refugee crisis, albeit more as a consumer of news and feature stories than a producer. Although the media focus and public interest have dwindled quite dramatically, the story is far from over. There are still 5 million Syrian refugees in the region and 6 million Syrians internally displaced inside the country. And the challenges will continue for the millions of Syrians scattered across the world, as they rebuild their lives. That is our challenge, to continue reminding the world via our work.
When the series went out, I allowed myself to feel some sense of achievement that I had persisted until the end. There was also a level of relief and I felt I could move on emotionally, although I am still in touch with all of the families. Some still ask me why their situation hasn’t changed. It is never an easy conversation. And yet, in the weeks that followed the series, I did receive emails from people from across the world, telling me that they had been moved by the series and wanted to know more.. Perhaps that is all one can hope for, a change, however small, in people’s attitudes.
* Photo: MCJN mentor Zahra Mackaoui with Shahad, who still lives with her family in a camp in Lebanon