According to the UNHCR nearly a million Syrian refugees are registered in Lebanon. Many live in extreme poverty.
According to the UNHCR nearly a million Syrian refugees are registered in Lebanon. Many live in extreme poverty.

In 2016, 12-year-old Zain Al Rafeea was working as a delivery boy on the streets of Beirut when he was discovered by a famous Lebanese film director. After starring in her film Capernaum, he and his family were recently relocated to Norway with the help of the UNHCR.

Nadine Labaki's film "Capernaum" is a labor of love, a tragic portrayal of the poverty and hopelessness of refugees and migrants who live in Lebanon's slums. The film was recently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards and winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes.

The star of Capernaum is a small, undernourished boy called Zain who was just 12 when Labaki's casting director found him on the streets of Beirut; having a fight.

"Zain is a Syrian refugee. He has been living in Lebanon for the past eight years in very difficult circumstances. […] When we started shooting [...] he didn’t even know how to write his name. So Zain grew up on the streets." 

Zain is both a real person and a character in her film; the line between fact and fiction is constantly blurred as the real lives of the actors mirror and inform those of their characters in the film. 

The blurring between fact and fiction was deliberate, explains Labaki at a panel discussion with prominent film critic Annette Insdorf in early November. “I felt responsible in some way. I felt responsible for our inaction. […] Sometimes the problem is so big, we don’t know what to do about it and so we keep silent.” Labaki didn’t want to remain silent; she wanted to humanize the problems she was seeing around her in Lebanon, the problems of living without papers, essentially the problems of refugees.

Giving a voice to the voiceless

"I wondered, what does it feel to be him? How does it feel to be so ignored, so invisible? If I gave this boy a voice, what would he say? What would he tell me?" Labaki wanted to shine a light on this problem; to create a debate, in Lebanon and around the world. She is trying to change things, to work with the government and ministries and to understand what is going wrong in the system.

That system is chaotic she thinks. It was this feeling which inspired the title of the film, Capernaum, which is a synonym for chaos. Years of research for the film rounded out these ideas still further. She would go to the slums where refugee, migrants and those without papers live, on the margins of society; put in prison, for the simple reason that they have no papers. "I have seen the failures, where things are going wrong. I have heard it from those kids' mouths. They tell me what they are going through," she adds.

Refugees have set up tents in central Sarajevo

'Living in hell'

Labaki herself grew up in war and chaos in Lebanon and is the mother of two children. She stressed the fact that many of the kids she met during research for the film were essentially "living in hell." They don’t even know when their birthday is, let alone having ever celebrated the day they were born, she explains. 

The character Zain in her film tries to sue his parents for having given him life. He, like many others, can't see the point of having been born when no one is going to love them, when no one gives them food to eat when they are hungry. Labaki talks about the shock she felt when children were saying that they were not happy to be alive, that in fact they wished themselves dead. "When they talked about themselves, they used words like 'I'm an insect, I’m a parasite, I’m nothing.' […]They don’t have any notion of the sacred nature of their being," she concludes.

Syrian refugee Mohamed Rached in his tent at Faydha refugee camp east of Lebanon  Credit picture-alliancedpaNMounzer

A ticking timebomb

Labaki wasn't happy to stop at just research or even highlighting the problem. She wanted others to start asking the questions with her. "What is going to happen to those kids? We are talking about millions of kids across the world that live in those conditions. If we don't do anything about it, it is going to explode in our faces one day. Those kids are growing up very angry, at us: The society that ignores them."

Many refugees hope to reunite with family members who are still at home or in transit countries   Credit Picture-alliancedpa

Humanizing the problem was her answer - her lead actor, Zain Al Rafeea, did that perfectly. He said in a Cannes press conference that he found filming "easy." Nothing was difficult for him. "She told me to be sad and I was sad, she told me to be happy and I was happy," he explains simply in a quiet voice.

Starting a new life

In September, Zain and his family, with the help of the UNHCR, was moved to Norway to start a new life. At the time, Nadine Labaki wrote on her Instagram account: "Just a few minutes before we left for the airport, I watched him give a last look at the neighborhood where he lived for eight years. Zain cried… and said he would miss his friends, the birds and Beirut and his life there despite the fear and the difficulties."

When asked at Cannes what he wanted to be when he grew up, Zain replied with a smile: "an actor!" Now, he's hoping to go to school to learn reading and writing. Labaki reports that he is doing just that in Norway. "He has an amazing house overlooking the sea, he has a bed, he has never slept in a bed in his life!" she says smiling.

On Instagram, Labaki wrote: "Zain was not a Syrian, a Lebanese, a Norwegian, a Christian or a Muslim. He was a child who paid for our silly wars without knowing why it happened."

Refugees on their way to Moria camp near Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos

Labaki hoped that her film would provide Zain and other children like him with new horizons. In Zain's case, it seems her wish came true. In the last shot of the film, Zain the character smiles for the first time in the film. On life’s stage, Zain the boy is smiling now too.

Additional reporting by Mehyeddin Hussein (Arabic)


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